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Biography of Homi Bhabha

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Homi J. Bhabha (1909-1966) was an Indian nuclear scientist who played an important role in India's early nuclear power program. (Note that there is another Indian academic named Homi K. Bhabha, who is an accomplished and still-living Harvard literary theorist.)

Bhabha was born in Bombay, now Mumabi, and educated at a Scottish-run grammar school before attending Elphinstone College.  He then got into Cambridge University. Originally this admission was supported on his family's hope that he would study engineering, but Bhabha instead displayed a more theoretical bent, and chose mathematics.

As a result, Bhabha spent the early 1930s studying in England, under the supervision of future Nobel Prize co-laureate Paul Dirac. The laboratory in which he worked was at the then-cutting edge of atomic research, and on research trips in Europe Bhabha was introduced to such important future figures as Enrico Fermi, later a researcher in the American Manhattan Project. His first published research involved cosmic rays.

Bhabha was on holiday in India when Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939. As a result, Bhabha chose to remain in his home country while the war raged, and took up a lecturing position at the Indian Institute of Science, again researching cosmic rays. After the war, the newly independent government was led by a friend, Jawaharlal Nehru, who appointed Bhabha to head the newly created Indian Atomic Energy Commission. This position made him instrumental in shaping the early years of Indian research into nuclear energy as well as participating in several international atomic energy committees. At the time, there was considerable optimism in the West that atomic energy would be the electrical power supply of the future. India did subsequently develop nuclear weapons, as well, although its first test did not occur until the mid-1970s under Indira Gandhi.

Bhabha died along with all 116 other passengers and crew aboard Air India Flight 101 on January 24, 1966, when this plane crashed in France while en route from India to the United States. According to post-crash investigators, the pilot was making an approach for a landing at Geneva when he miscalculated his position and descended into Mont Blanc, which he believed he had already passed. There have been claims that the crash was the result of a CIA conspiracy against the Indian nuclear program, although the conclusion that it was a mechanical failure of certain navigation instruments, and subsequent pilot miscalculation, seems much more plausible.

Today, Bhabha's legacy survives in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, a Mumbai (Bombay) research institute formerly known as the Trombay Atomic Energy Establishment. Various other organizations and scholarships in India also bear his name.

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