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A leader for an innovative India A.P.J. Abdul Kalam

In India after independence, science and technology (S&T) saw a two-phased progress on the back of the momentum created in the 1930s by six great scientists of international repute.

     Print Edition: January 13, 2008

A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, Former President of India
A.P.J. Abdul Kalam
In India after independence, science and technology (S&T) saw a two-phased progress on the back of the momentum created in the 1930s by six great scientists of international repute.

They were Sir C.V. Raman, Chandrasekhar Subramaniam, S.N. Bose, J.C. Bose, Meghnad Saha, Srinivasa Ramanujam, who inspired confidence in the countrymen in their own abilities. I consider the 1930s as the glorious period in Indian science. The scientific foundation laid by these personalities inspired the later generations also.

Any country in the initial stages of development revolves around a few stout, earnest and knowledge giants. I, therefore, studied the lives of three scientists, as I was keen to learn about their scientific and technological leadership qualities that underscored the significance of S&T in the development of the nation.

These individuals were founders of the three greatest scientific institutions in the country. I had the honour of working in two of these institutions directly and in partnership with the third one.

One of the three scientists was D. S. Kothari, a Delhi university professor who was also an outstanding physicist-cum-astrophysicist.

He is well-known for his theory on ionisation of matter by pressure in cold and compact objects like planets. His research complemented the work done by his guru, Meghnad Saha, on thermal ionisation.

Kothari set a scientific tradition in Indian defence matters when he was made Scientific Advisor to the defence minister in 1948. He constituted a Board of Advisors to the Scientific Advisor consisting of such giants as H. J. Bhaba, K. S. Krishnan and S. S. Bhatnagar.

Later, the board was renamed as the Scientific Advisory Board with enlarged membership.

Scientist-soldier partnership

Kothari realised early on that the main purpose of Defence Science Organisation was to serve the immediate and long-term needs of the armed forces.

He, therefore, repeatedly stressed the need for a scientist-soldier partnership. He made efforts to establish a rapport with the chiefs of the three Services. Kothari was also able to establish extremely cordial relations with his senior service officers at all levels.

Satellite launch vehicle
Satellite launch vehicles
As Scientific Advisor, he identified the following disciplines for development: Operational Research & Ballistics, Explosives & Armaments, Rockets & Missiles, Naval Technology, Engineering, Food & Life Sciences and problems posed by adverse environment on men and material. All these disciplines are relevant and functioning even today.

Kothari also established the Defence Science Centre for conducting research in electronic materials, nuclear medicine and ballistic science. He is, therefore, considered the architect of defence science in India.

The second giant was Homi Jehangir Bhabha. Before coming to India, he was a research student in theoretical physics in University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, where he did outstanding original research on cosmic radiation.

He discovered that electron pairs were produced when cosmic radiation interacted with matter; he also identified muons, particles produced by cosmic rays.

The latter discovery won him the prestigious fellowship of Royal Society. On his return in 1939, Bhabha joined Sir Raman at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore.

In 1945, he started the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), where he focussed on nuclear and mathematical science. After Independence, he established the Atomic Energy Commission in 1948.

Bhabha is acknowledged as the founder of India’s atomic energy programme. His vision gave birth to centres of excellence in nuclear technology, nuclear power, nuclear devices and nuclear medicine.

Today, the country generates 4,000 MW of electricity from nuclear power, and we are moving towards generating 20,000 MW by 2020.

Vikram Sarabhai was the youngest of the three and worked with Sir Raman in the study of experimental cosmic rays. He established the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad with space research as focus.

Later on, he became the director of Space Science & Technology Centre (SSTC), which set off in 1963 by launching sounding rockets to conduct atmospheric research.

In 1970, Sarabhai unveiled the country’s space mission with its vision of building satellite launch vehicle capability for putting our communication satellites in the geo-synchronous orbit and remote sensing satellites in the polar orbit.

He also envisioned that launch vehicles built in India should be launched from Indian soil. All this led to intensive research in multiple fields of science and space technology.

Many of us had the good fortune to be part of Sarabhai’s vision. I was part of the team that participated in India’s first satellite launch vehicle programme to put a satellite in the orbit.

Today, with its 14,000 scientific, technological and support staff in multiple space research centres, supported by about 300 industries and academic institutions, India has the capability to build satellite launch vehicles for placing remote sensing, communication and meteorology satellites in different orbits.

In fact, space application has become a part of our daily life. Dear readers, you can see how visionaries of a nation bring about economic transformation and technological change. I would like you to emulate these visionaries, dream and work for transforming India into a developed nation.

These three scientists, all of them physicists, founded research institutions that have produced technologies for the country in the fields of defence, nuclear and space.

I believe that from their experience, they must have realised that science and technology has to be made attractive to the political leaders.

It is essential that technologies that give immediate benefits to the people directly or indirectly should be packaged and successfully offered to the political leadership.

Another important message conveyed by these scientists is that basic science is very vital for the growth of technology as well as the growth of scientific and technological leaderships.

The advancements in science and technology in the last 60 years have been nothing short of amazing. Several new frontiers have been conquered while newer possibilities are being explored, particularly in the fields of aeronautics, space technology, electronics, materials, pharmaceuticals, bio-technology, computer science and software products.

India itself is a part of these challenges. Indian bio-technologists will now be able to analyse the available genomic data, which could lead to production of drugs for treatment of many incurable diseases.

Bio-technology holds the promise of revolutionising agriculture and agricultural production.

In the coming decades, we may see, as discussed at the International Physics Conference recently, the birth of a unified field theory that integrates gravitational and electro-magnetic forces, general relativity theory, space and time.

Young people may actually get to see in their lifetime, as imagined in the book, Future Revolutions, by David Mercer, establishment of a human habitat or industry on one of our planets or the moon.

Already, the world looks set to launch solar power satellites through reusable launch vehicles (hyperplane) system to meet the electricity needs of the mankind in 50 to 100 years!

Technology always has two sides to it. It can lead to economic prosperity, but it can also create capability for national security.

Over the past 40 years, one way or another I have witnessed this duality of technology. For instance, developments in chemical engineering gave us fertilisers that increased the crop yields, but the same science also created chemical weapons.

Similarly, rocket technology developed for atmospheric research helped in launching satellites for remote sensing and communication applications that are vital for the economic development. But the same technology also led to the development of missiles with specific defence needs.

The development of aviation technology has created fighter and bomber aircraft that defend a country, but it has also given us passenger jets as well as the capability for quickly reaching people in remote areas in times of disasters.

When nuclear science was introduced in India in the 1950s, within two decades the country was able to benefit from nuclear medicine, nuclear irradiation for preservation of agricultural products and nuclear power. Nuclear weapons came much later.

Creative leadership

Today, there are 540 million youth below 25 years in India’s population of a billion people. The nation needs young leaders who can steer the transformation of India into a developed nation and a knowledge society.

It’s the leaders who create new institutions of excellence. Quality leaders are like magnets; they attract the best persons to work for their vision and in turn give inspiring leadership even during failures of missions, since they are not afraid of taking risks. I have seen and worked with such creators of vision and missions.

In my interactions with the various organisations I worked for during the last five decades, I have found the following qualities to be of utmost importance for a creative leader:

  • A leader must have a vision for the organisation
  •  A leader must be able to explore uncharted areas
  • A leader must know how to celebrate the successes and manage the failures
  •  A leader must have the courage to take decisions
  •  A leader should exhibit nobility in management
  •  A leader should be transparent

For a sustainable growth of S&T in any nation, the thrust has to be on producing creative leaders by nurturing talent and promoting innovation in every scientific mission.

These creative leaders, I am sure, will promote the innovation in S&T needed for transforming India into a developed nation before 2020.

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