At the southernmost tip of Mumbai, the buzz and bustle of India’s financial capital gives way to the quiet of green lawns and the gentle lapping of the Arabian Sea around the imposing edifice of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR). Here, it is not the rise and fall of stock prices that furrows the brows of people you bump into, but the unsolved mysteries of our universe.
Conversations in the cafeteria revolve around the string theory, the Big Bang, or how to get sub-atomic particles to accelerate and collide meaningfully. India’s leading research institute in the fields of natural science, mathematics and theoretical computer science, TIFR is where the likes of Nobel laureates Stephen Hawking and John Nash drop in for a lecture or two; where scientists work to build parts of the world’s largest particle accelerator; where neutrinos are detected, and the human genome is unravelled.
This thriving laboratory for scientific ideas was the brainchild of Homi J Bhabha, nuclear physicist and the father of India’s atomic energy programme. Back in 1945, when TIFR came into existence, pre-independence India’s scientific achievements were far ahead of its industrial successes. Yet, Mr Bhabha felt strongly that India needed a place where the nation’s bright minds could focus on pure science and research. This would strengthen the nation’s scientific infrastructure and boost its image as a modern state.
Mr Bhabha found a valuable ally in JRD Tata, who shared his vision and helped him to realise his dream. On JRD’s instigation, Mr Bhabha wrote to the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust requesting financial assistance for setting up TIFR, where he talked about “creating a school of physics comparable to the best anywhere in the world”. The funds for this worthy endeavour were made available and an institution was born.
TIFR’s first forays were into the fields of cosmic rays, nuclear emulsion and electron magnetism, and soon thereafter, computer science. The institute became the base for India’s atomic energy programme and, ten years after it was set up, the institute formally came under the umbrella of the Department of Atomic Energy, Government of India.
What makes TIFR unique is that it was born as a privately-funded research institute, then became a government-funded organisation (even today more than 90 per cent of its funding comes from the Department of Atomic Energy), and now has morphed into an educational body by becoming a deemed university offering master’s and doctoral programmes.
Since its early days, TIFR with its focus on experimental and cutting-edge research has created its own diaspora of trend-setting initiatives. India’s first digital computer was crafted at TIFR, back in 1957. TIFR has set up new centres for radio astrophysics, theoretical sciences, and applicable mathematics. In the words of former director Prof S Bhattacharya, “TIFR, more than any other Indian institution or industry, has spawned a variety of vital organisations.”
TIFR was born at the time that the nation was born; the country’s struggle to find its feet and attain a measure of self-reliance was mirrored to some extent within this campus. But very soon thereafter, the institute’s prime objectives changed. “In science, you cannot stop once you have crossed the indigenous hurdle; you also have to get to a given point before everybody else. Frontier science is about being the discoverer,” explains Prof Bhattacharya.
More importantly, the institute offers its people the opportunity to work in the most conducive work environment possible. The TIFR campus boasts some truly excellent infrastructure, the finest equipment with the latest technology, a fully computerised library and, equally significant, good housing facilities for the students and faculty.
In recent years, TIFR has taken upon itself a new responsibility — that of attracting the country’s young minds to careers in the basic sciences, instead of losing them to institutions such as the IITs or even campuses overseas. Since 2003, TIFR offers not just doctoral programmes, but also masters and integrated programmes, giving bright youngsters the opportunity to study science at a premium institution.
The year 2009 is a milestone year for TIFR. Not only is it the birth centenary of Homi Bhabha, it also marks the establishment of its second campus in Hyderabad. “This 200-acre campus will be an institution of international repute, committed to meeting the challenges of a changing world,” says Prof Barma.
In the over 50 years that have lapsed since its inception, TIFR has truly exceeded its founder’s expectations. The institute’s achievements and position on the global scientific map are clear and visible, prominent among them being the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope, at Khodad, near Pune, which is one of its kind and the best in the world for what it does. Another significant achievement that attracted worldwide attention is the discovery by TIFR scientists of a new class of superconductors.
Today, TIFR represents the best and foremost of India’s talent in the new dimensions of science, maths and technology that will eventually define and describe the shape that our world will take tomorrow.