“He played a number of roles — scientist, educator, policymaker, administrator, teacher — and excelled in each one of them. But to me, he was a philosopher of science. He had immense interest in the interactions of science and society, and wanted everyone to get exposed to the wonders of science,” said R P Bhamba, a former vice-chancellor of Panjab University, about Professor Yash Pal, the celebrated scientist and educationist who died in the early hours of Tuesday. Yash Pal was 90.
Bhamba was a couple of years senior to Yash Pal at college in pre-Independence Lahore, and for a few months they used to stay in the same area of the town. “We became friends only after we came to college… He was a remarkable man. I was always impressed with the range of his interests,” Bhamba said.
Best remembered for ‘Turning Point’, a popular TV programme he hosted on science, Yash Pal was among the first generation of visionary scientists who shaped India’s science and education policies. Having earned his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in cosmic rays physics, Yash Pal was groomed by the legendary Homi Bhabha who had set up the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. He did some pioneering work in cosmic rays physics in the 1950s and 1960s, and was soon handed over some key responsibilities in nuclear and space sciences.
“He was already a celebrity when I landed at TIFR as a student in 1972,” recalled Arun Kumar Grover, Vice-Chancellor of Panjab University, which also happens to be Yash Pal’s alma mater.
Yash Pal moved to Ahmedabad in 1973, taking over as the first director of the newly opened Space Applications Centre which now is one of the most important research and development centres of Indian Space Research Organisation. He was later roped in by the government to serve as Secretary of the Department of Science and Technology. After his retirement in 1986, he was appointed Chairman of University Grants Commission, a job he held for five years, that many think was also his most impactful as a policymaker.
One of his lasting contributions from this time was the creation of inter-university centres, the most famous of which is the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune. The Delhi-based Inter-University Accelerator Centre is also part of this group.
“The idea was mooted by (astrophysicist) Jayant Narlikar and Yash Pal was convinced. Yash Pal was a great believer in the university system. He had been very impressed with the MIT and wanted to build quality universities here. He used to say that it was not enough to have scientific excellence confined to laboratories and research institutions, and always wanted the IITs and even TIFR to be part of a university. He believed that if scientific temper had to be inculcated in general public, science needed to be promoted at the university level. The inter-university centre was a great idea to train university teachers and help them with their research,” Grover said.
Many of these ideas found place in a report by a high-powered committee on higher education headed by Yash Pal. The report was submitted in 2009 and continues to serve as the blueprint for reforms in higher education.
Though he is known mostly for his work as science administrator, communicator and educationist, his achievements as a scientist were no less important. “His work on cosmic rays was path-breaking during his time. He had done pioneering work on developing models that showed the propagation of cosmic rays and pointed to their likely sources, which were unknown at that time. In another work, he, along with his collaborators, were able to explain the presence of unexpected elements like Lithium, Berelium and Boron in cosmic rays as a result of collision of these radiations with other particles. From this, he was also able to show that cosmic rays are trapped in our galaxies for tens of millions of years,” Sunil Gupta of TIFR, who also works on cosmic rays, told The Indian Express.