The death of Professor Yash Pal is being mourned not by the scientific community alone, but the loss is being felt by a large cross-section of the citizenry whom he had educated, mentored or otherwise enabled. In the “otherwise” category are the lakhs of people who were saved from being duped by a landmark lawsuit in 2004, Prof Yashpal and Anr vs State of Chhattisgarh and Ors. His victory resulted in the closure of 112 fake private universities, at a time when they were breaking out like an attack of hives, and served as a warning for crooked education entrepreneurs all over the country.
Yash Pal’s career began with original research in cosmic rays at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but in later life, he focused on reform in higher education and the dissemination of science through popular communication. He chaired the steering committee for the development of a national curriculum framework, and his 2009 report on the “Renovation and Rejuvenation of Higher Education in India” clearly defined the road ahead in a country which focused on higher education and technology after Independence, but then lost its way. He held key posts in planning, the space mission, education and UN organisations.
But he may be remembered most fondly for his extra-curricular activity, so to speak — the popularisation of science, not by bureaucratic promotion, but by personal engagement. Yash Pal was appreciated for his television appearances and also engaged with readers through newspaper columns. He explained complex scientific concepts in the simplest terms, shorn of the intimidating language which baffles lay readers. At a time when leading scientists are generally happy to leave the explaining to journalists, his voice will be missed by laypersons as much as the millions of people whose lives he changed through educational interventions.