Remarks on Prof Yash Pal (1926-2017)

Prof Yash Pal Memorial Meeting Panjab University Chandigarh 10 Aug 2017


Rajesh Kochhar

Panjab University Mathematics Department

[email protected]

Prof Yash Pal passed MSc Honours School in Physics in 1949 from the then East Punjab University, the dissertation work for which was done at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Mumbai which he had already joined as a research student. In 1954 he left for Massachusetts Institute of Technology from where he obtained PhD in 1958. He nominally retired from TIFR in 1983. He was the first Director, Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad (1973-81); Secretary, Department of Science & Technology, Government of India (1984-86); and Chairman, University Grants Commission (1986-91). While at TIFR he visited Panjab University Physics Department as guest faculty, and later held Jawaharlal Nehru Chair in Technology, Panjab University (1997-1999). He was awarded DSc (honoris causa) by Panjab University in 1987. Among the numerous awards he won are the Marconi International Prize (1980) and UNESCO Kalinga Prize for Science Popularization (2009).

He was awarded Padma Bhushan in 1976 and Padma Vibhushan in 2013.

( Prof Yash Pal’s family name was Bhutani which he never used. In his matric certificate he wrote his last name as Arya. Better sense prevailed and in the next, Intermediate Exam, he called himself Yash Pal Bharti. Subsequently he was known as Yash Pal.)

I would like to draw your attention to some not-so- well-known aspects of pre-history of Space Application Centre of which Prof Yash Pal was the first director.

The story begins with International Geophysical Year which was celebrated during 1957-58. It was the first time that India, now independent, was taking part in an international science program, as an equal. IGY brought Vikram Sarabhai centre- stage and paved the way for India’s own space program.

In the 1950s, only two government departments had any science content: All India Radio and Met department. KR Ramanathan retired from IMD as deputy director general in 1948, and immediately took over as the director of the newly established Physical Research Lab Ahmedabad. It was due to the Ramanthan connection that Vikram Sarabhai got associated with IGY at the planning stage itself. Indian National Committee for Space Research (INCOSPAR) was set up in 1962 with Sarabhai as the chairman. ISRO came up in 1969 and Department of Space in 1972.

The equation that middling NASA officialdom built with Sarabhai during IGY days came to be used a few years later when USA launched Satellite Instructional Television Experiment. USA was very keen that a large country like India with independent foreign policy should join the program. Acting on off-the-record phone calls from a NASA official, Sarabhai spoke to Indira Gandhi and got her permission for participation. Not only that, a letter was sent as if the initiative for joining came from India itself. In the cold war climate of those days, India’s participation in a US program was a big thing.

Satish Dhawan, ISRO chief, asked Yash Pal to direct the SITE India program. Yash Pal’s felicity with instrumentation; his ability to enthuse and persuade people, Indira Gandhi downwards; his ability to inspire younger people; and his innate love for teaching all combined to make the educational TV program a spectacular success. USA had made its satellite available only for a year August 1975-July 1976, and turned down India’s request for an extension. India then decided to continue its programs by contracting a commercial satellite from Ford Aerospace. More importantly India decided to develop its own satellite network as part of INSAT program.

Yash Pal became a household name with the Doordarshan science series called Turning Point which began in 1992 and ran into more than 150 episodes. Sadly, TV channels today, Doordarshan included, will have no use for  a Yash Pal. Even if such a program were to be telecast, it will not get TRP.

A great man’s life is greater than the biographical details. Yash Pal belonged to an era when nation building occupied top most place in individual and collective agendas and science was seen as the chief instrument of nation building and economic growth. If a country’s GDP does not depend on science, science cannot flourish in that country. Non-science based economic growth can neither be sustained for long nor can it be equitable.

In radio astronomy, telecommunications and allied fields, India was able to establish symbiotic relationship between the educational system, pure research, strategic science, and industry. That is how success attended the efforts. There is a general lesson here.

Ironically while the society’s dependence on technology is increasing sharply, respect for principles of science is decreasing even more sharply. Real tribute to Prof Yash Pal will not be to name a building after him or to institute an award or a lecture or a medal after him, but to revive national interest in and curiosity about science.//


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