Vigyan Prasar Science Portal
For anything and everything on science from India
Home
Meghnad Saha
A Pioneer in Astrophysics
 
 
 
Dr Subodh Mahanti
 
“The impetus given to astrophysics by Saha’s work can scarcely be overestimated, as nearly all later progress in this field has been influenced by it and much of the subsequent work has the character of refinements of Saha’s ideas.”
S. Rosseland in Theoretical Astrophysics (Oxford University Press, 1939)

“Scientists are often accused of living in the “Ivory Tower” and not troubling their mind with realities and apart from my association with political movements in my juvenile years, I had lived in ivory tower up to 1930. But science and technology are as important for administration now-a-days as law and order. I have gradually glided into politics because I wanted to be of some use to the country in my own humble way.”

Meghnad Saha

“He (Saha) was extremely simple, almost austere, in his habits and personal needs. Outwardly, he sometimes gave an impression of being remote, matter of fact, and even harsh, but once the outer shell was broken, one invariably found in him a person of extreme warmth, deep humanity, sympathy and understanding; and though almost altogether unmindful of his own personal comforts, he was extremely solicitous in the case of others. It was not in his nature to placate others. He was a man of undaunted spirit, resolute determination, untiring energy and dedication.”

D. S. Kothari in Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the National Institute of Sciences of India, Vol .2, New Delhi, 1970


‘Meghnad Saha’s place in the history of astrophysics and in the history of modern science in India is unique’, wrote Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-95). Saha’s theory of thermal ionisaiton, which explained the origin of stellar spectra, was one of India’s most important contributions to world science during the 20th century. It was an epoch-making discovery. Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1944), while writing on stars in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, described Saha’s theory of thermal ionisaiton as the twelfth most important landmark in the history of astronomy since the first variable star (Mira Ceti) discovered by Saha made important contributions in different branches of physics. Saha (jointly with B.N. Srivastava) wrote the renowned textbook, entitled, Treatise on Heat, which was originally published in 1931 under the title, A Text Book on Heat. It was Saha who first started the teaching and training in nuclear physics in the country. The first cyclotron in the country was built with Saha’s initiatives. Saha was a great institution builder. Among the institutions that he built were: National Academy of Sciences, India, at Allahabad, Indian Physical Society, Kolkata, National Institution of Sciences of India (which was later renamed Indian
National Science Academy), New Delhi, Indian Science News Association, Kolkata, and Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata. Saha was an active member of the National Planning Committee constituted by the Indian National Congress in 1938 with Jawaharlal Nehru as its Chairman. He was the Chairman of the Indian Calendar Reform Committee constituted by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research in 1952. He was an elected Independent Member of the Indian Parliament. He advocated large-scale industrialisation for social development.

Meghnad Saha was born on October 06, 1893 in the village of Seoratali in the Dhaka (then Dacca) district (now in Bangladesh) of undivided India. He was the fifth child of his parents, Jagannath Saha and Bhubaneswari Devi. His father, Jagannath, was a petty shopkeeper. Given their social and economic background his parents had neither the means nor the inclination for educating their children beyond the primary education. Saha’s elder brother Jainath, after failing to pass the matriculation examination, started working in a jute company on a monthly salary of Rs.20. His second brother had to discontinue his school education in order to help his father in running the shop. At the age of seven Saha joined the village primary school and from the very beginning he demonstrated an unusual aptitude for learning.

Radharani Saha, wife of Saha,

After the completion of his primary education there was no certainty that his education would continue further. Their parents would have preferred to have him work in the family’s grocery shop. In any case they did not see any use of further education in running the shop. Moreover there was no middle school nearer to his village. The nearest middle school was at Simulia, which was 10 kms away from his village. Saha’s parents did not have the means to take care of the expenses of his boarding and lodging. At this stage his elder brother Jainath came in his rescue by locating a sponsor in Ananta Kumar Das, a local doctor. The kind-hearted doctor agreed to provide Saha free boarding and lodging in his house provided Saha washed his own plates (a condition that reflected the prevailing rigid caste system) and attend minor household works including the taking care of the cow. Saha readily accepted all the conditions as he had a strong urge to continue his studies further. Every weekend he used to visit his village. When the village became flooded he would row all the way, otherwise he would simply walk down. Saha completed his middle school by topping the list of successful candidates in the entire district of Dhaka. As a result he secured a scholarship of Rs.4 per month. In 1905 Saha came to Dhaka, where he joined the Collegiate School, a government school. His elder brother sent him a monthly allowance of Rs.5, it was indeed a great sacrifice on his part, as his total monthly salary was Rs.20. The Purba Banga Baisya Samiti gave another Rs.2 per month. So Saha had Rs.11 to manage his food, lodging and other expenses.

There were widespread political disturbances in Bengal in 1905. In this year Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of British India, had decided to partition Bengal. Saha, like many others, was affected by this political upheaval. He, along with some other students, were rusticated from the Collegiate School, because of their participation in the demonstration against the visit of the Bengal Governor, Sir Bamfylde Fuller, to the school. It is not certain whether Saha actually participated in the demonstration or not, because there is another version of the story. According to this version, Saha did not take part in the demonstration. On that fateful day as usual he had gone to school barefooted. For Saha it was a usual practice, as he had not enough money to buy shoes. But on that day the authorities took it as a deliberate insult directed against the Governor. Besides being rusticated Saha was deprived of his scholarship. Fortunately a private school, named Kishori Lal Jubilee School, accepted Saha with a free studentship and a stipend. In 1909 Saha passed the Entrance Examination from Kishori Lal Jubilee School standing first amongst all the candidates from erstwhile East Bengal.
 

In school Saha’s favourite subject was mathematics and he also liked history. He was particularly fond of reading Todd’s Rajasthan. He used to be fascinated by the heroic tales of Rajput and Maratha warriors. Among his favourite books were Rabindranath Tagore’s Katha O Kahini, which glorifies the values of the Rajput and Maratha warriors and Madhusudan Dutt’s epic poem Meghnad Badh. During his school days Saha also attended the free Bible classes conducted by the Dhaka Baptist Mission. He stood first in one of the competitive examinations of Bible conducted by the Mission and received a cash prize of Rs.100.

After passing the Intermediate Examination of the Calcutta University in 1911 from the Dhaka College, Dhaka, Saha joined the Presidency College at Kolkata (then Calcutta). Among his classmates was Satyendranath Bose, of the Bose-Einstein Statistics fame. Prasanta Chandra Mohalanobis, the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute, was his senior by a year. His teachers included Prafulla Chandra Ray in chemistry and Jagadis Chandra Bose in physics. Saha passed his BSc Examination with Honours in Mathematics in 1913 and MSc (Applied Mathematics) Examination in 1915. Saha stood second in order of merit in both the examinations. The first position in both cases went to S.N. Bose.

With President Rajendra Prasad

Saha was appointed lecturer in the Department of Applied Mathematics in 1916 in the University College of Science. The foundation stone of the University College of Science was laid down on 27 March 1914 just four days before Asutosh Mookerjee laid down his office as Vice Chancellor of the University. It may be noted here that Mookerjee who was the Vice Chancellor of the Calcutta University during 1906-14 and then again during 1921-23. Both Saha and S.N. Bose, who also joined the Department as a lecturer, got themselves transferred to the Physics Department, where a year later C.V. Raman joined as Palit Professor of Physics. After joining the physics department Saha started giving lectures to the post-graduate classes on topics like hydrostatics, the figure of the Earth, spectroscopy and thermodynamics. For teaching physics to the postgraduate classes, Saha had to learn it himself first, as he studied physics only in the undergraduate classes. It was a great challenge indeed. Besides teaching Saha also started doing research. It was not an easy task. In those days there was no experimental laboratory in the Department of Physics of the University College of Science. He had only one ‘research facility’ that is the wellequipped Library of the Presidency College. Saha had no guide for supervising his research work. He totally depended on his knowledge acquired from private studies. During this period Saha did not have enough money to pay for publication of his research paper in foreign journal. To quote Saha :

“By the end of 1917, I had written a long essay on `Selective Radiation Pressure’ elaborating on theory of the role of radiation pressure’ acting on the atom selectively and compensating the action of gravity on solar atoms. This paper was sent to the Astrophysical Journal for publication, but the editors replied that as the paper was rather long, it could be published only if I were willing to bear a part of the printing costs which ran to three figures in dollars. Much as I would have liked to do so, it was not possible me to find out so much money as my salary was small and I had to maintain my old parents and a younger brother who was studying within this salary. So I wrote to the editors of the Astrophysical Journal expressing my inability to pay the costs of printing, but never heard anything more about the publication of this paper nor was it returned to me. Years afterwards, in 1936, when I visited Yerkes Observatory, Dr. Morgan showed me the manuscript which was still being kept there. I got a short note published in the Astrophysical Journal, Vol. 50,220 (1919) and submitted a duplicate of the original article on `selective radiation pressure and problem of solar atmosphere’ ( Journal of the Department of Science, Calcutta University, 1919) sometime afterwards for publication in our own university journal which had no circulation worth mentioning. I am mentioning these facts because I might claim to be the originator of the Theory of Selective Radiation Pressure, though an account of above discouraging circumstances, I did not pursue the idea to develop it. E.A. Milne apparently read a note of mine in Nature 107, 489 (1921) because in his first paper on the subject `Astrophysical Determination of Average of an Excited Calcium Atom, in Month. Not. R. Ast. Soc., Vol.84, he mentioned my contribution in a footnote, though nobody appears to have noticed. His exact words are: `These Paragraphs develop ideas originally put forward by Saha’.”

Initially Saha worked on diverse topics as reflected from the titles of his published research papers as indicated below:

  • “On Maxwell’s Stresses” ( Philosophical Magazine, 1917), this paper was based on his studies of the electromagnetic theory of radiation;
  • “On the Limit of Interference in the Fabry-Perot Interferometer” ( Physical Review, 1917),
  • “On A New Theorem in Elasticity” ( Journal of the Asiatic Society, Bengal, 1918),
  • “On the Dynamics of the Electron” ( Phil. Mag. 1918)
  • “On the Pressure of Light” ( Journal of the Asiatic Society, Bengal, 1928)
  • “On the Influence of Finite Volume of Molecules on the Equation of State” ( Phil. Mag , 1918). This paper was jointly written with S.N. Bose.
  • “On the Mechanical and Electro-dynamical Properties of the Electron” ( Physical Review, 1919);
  • “On the Radiation Pressure and the Quantum Theory” ( Astrophysical Journal, 1919);
  • “On the Fundamental Law of Electrical Action” ( Phil. Mag. 1919).

 

Based on his above work Saha submitted his thesis for the degree of Doctor of Science of the Calcutta University in 1918. He was awarded the degree in 1919. The same year he was awarded the Premchand Roychand Scholarship for his dissertation on the ‘Harvard Classification of Stellar Spectra’. While working on diverse topics he was also preparing for his main work in astrophysics. For this work he profited from reading Agnes Clarke’s two popular books on astronomy and astrophysics. He had also read Planck’s Thermodynamics and Nernst’s Das Neue Warmestaz and research papers of Niels Bohr and Arnold Sommerfeld on the quantum theory of atom. He published four papers on his astrophysical research in the first six months of 1920 in the Philosophical Magazine viz. “Ionisation of the Solar Chromosphere” (March 04, 1920), “On the Harvard Classification of Stars” (May 1920), “On Elements in the Sun” (22 May 1920) and “On the Problems of Temperature-Radiation of Gases” (25 May 1920). In these papers Saha formulated his Theory of Thermal Ionisation. His thesis on the ‘Origin of Lines in Stellar
Spectra’ won him the Griffith Prize of the Calcutta University in 1920.

It is interesting to note here that Saha, jointly with S.N. Bose prepared an English translation of Einstein’s papers on theory of relativity and got it published in a book form. Incidentally their translation of Einstein’s work on the theory of relativity happens to be the first on record. Chandrasekhar wrote : “…In 1919, only three years, after the founding of the general theory of relativity, Saha and S.N. Bose should have taken the time and the effort to translate and publish Einstein’s papers which have since become epochal. At a celebration of the Einstein centennial at Princeton University, three years ago, reference was made to a Japanese translation of Einstein’s papers as the first on record and I was glad that I was able to correct the impression. A Xerox copy of the Saha-Bose translation is now in the Einstein Achieves at Princeton”.

The Premchand Roychand Scholarship of the Calcutta University awarded in 1919 enabled Saha to spend about two years in Europe. He first went to London where he spent about five months in the laboratory of Alfred Fowler (1868-1940). From London he moved to Berlin where he worked in Walther Nernst’s Laboratory.

For a long time after Saha published his work on thermal ionization theory, the European scientific community used to believe that Saha did this work under the supervision of Albert Fowler. For example in 1972 while commenting on Saha’s paper on the ionization in the solar chromosphere, A.J. Meadows in his biography of Sir Norman Lockyer wrote : “Shortly after Lockyer’s death, an Indian physicist M.N. Saha, came to work under Fowler at Imperial College. The paper he wrote during this visit … showed how the spectra of stars could be understood in terms of the new quantum theory of the atom together with the dissociation hypothesis. After some initial opposition, his results were rapidly accepted. The theory showed that both temperature and pressure affected the dissociation of atoms in stellar atmospheres. So both Lockyer and his opponents had been partly right. It is only fair to Lockyer to add that the influence of temperature on stellar spectra is much more marked than of pressure.”

Medows’ observation was far from truth. To quote D. S. Kothari : “It is pertinent to remark that the ionization theory was formulated by Saha working by himself in Calcutta, and the paper quoted above was communicated by him from Calcutta to the Philosophical Magazine - incorrect statements to the contrary have sometimes been made. (Saha’s first visit to Europe was made a couple of months later.) Further papers soon followed. It is not too much to say that the theory of thermal ionization introduced a new epoch in astrophysics by providing for the first time, on the basis of simple thermodynamic consideration and elementary concepts of the quantum theory, a straight forward interpretation of the different classes of stellar spectra in terms of the physical condition (temperature and to a lesser extent pressure) prevailing in the stellar atmospheres.”

To describe how Saha got the idea of working on this topic and when he completed his work we quote Saha rather extensively:

“It was while pondering over the problems of astrophysics, and teaching thermodynamics and spectroscopy to the MSc classes that the theory of thermal ionization took a definite shape in my mind in 1919. I was a regular reader of German Journals, which had just started coming after four years of first world war, and in course of these studies, I came across a paper by J.Eggert in the Physikalische zeitschrifts (p.573) Dec. 1919, “ Uber den Dissociationzustand der Fixterngase” in which he applied Nernst’s Heat Theorem to explain the high ionization in stars due to high temperatures, postulated by Eddington in course of his studies on stellar structure.

Eggert, who was a pupil of Nernst and was at the time his assistant, had given a formula for thermal ionization, but it is rather strange that he missed the significance of ionization potential of atoms. Importance of which was apparent from the theoretical work of Bohr, and practical work of Franck and Hertz which was attracting a good deal of attention in those days…Eggert used Sackur’s formula of the chemical constant for calculating that of the electron, but in trying to account for multiple ionization of iron atoms in the interior of stars on this basis, he used very artificial values of ionization potential.

While reading Eggert’s paper I saw at once the importance of introducing the value of ionization potential in the formula of Eggert, for calculating accurately the ionization, single or multiple, of any particular element under any combination of temperature and pressure.

I thus arrived at the formula which now goes by my name. Owing to my previous acquaintance with chromospheric and stellar problems, I could at once see its application. I prepared in the course of six months of 1919 (February to September) four papers and communicated them for publication in the Philosophical Magazine from India within August to September.” “I had no personal acquaintance with Prof. A. Fowler except that I had read his paper on the spectrum of ionized helium. “On my arrival in England, I saw Prof. Albert Fowler who at first thought that I had come to work for the DSc degree of the London University like other Indian students working under him. But when I explained to him that I wanted to work there only for a short period to obtain verification of my theory, he did not show himself very enthusiastic, but allowed me to read and work in his laboratory. Probably he had not much time to listen to me at the first meeting. This was in November of 1920. If you look at the records of Imperial College, you will find that I never got my name registered for my degree work. In the meantime, my first paper “Ionization in the Solar Chromosphere” communicated from India had appeared in Phil. Mag, thanks to a personal call which I made on Mr. Francis, the publisher of the journal. After its publication, Prof. Fowler began to take a more lively interest in my work and in my views.”

In November 1921 Saha returned to India and joined the University of Calcutta as Khaira Professor of Physics, a new Chair created from the endowment of Kumar Guruprasad Singh of Khaira. But Saha did not stay long in Kolkata. He moved to Allahabad in 1923 as Head of the Department of Physics. Saha’s decision to move out of Kolkata was mainly because there were no financial grants for carrying out research. Though Asutosh Mookerjee could create additional chairs out of donations but the Government did not approve his plan for expansion. The then Governor Lord Ronaldshay, while praising the work done in the post-graduate departments of the Calcutta University, said: “In a poor country there are obvious limits to the extent to which such studies can be financed by public funds. The legislature will, I hope, be prepared to make some additional contribution towards the university in the present difficulties. But the legislature itself with extremely exiguous resources is faced with many urgent demands. And under the circumstances it appears to me that the university may have to consider whether it is bound to provide post-graduate teaching on every subject in which it is prepared to examine and confer awards…” Irrespective of Governor’s assurance there was no increase in the funds allocated to the Calcutta University. In 1922 the Government was willing to give an additional grant of two-and-a-half lakh. But the grant was subjected to certain conditions and which were not acceptable to Asutosh Mookerjee. While declining the offer Mookerjee said: “We will not take the money. We shall retrench and we shall live within our means. We shall go from door to door and make the people of Bengal realise their responsibility. Our Post-graduate teachers will starve themselves rather than give up their freedom.” Under these circumstances Saha’s decision to leave Calcutta evoked adverse feelings. The Calcutta Review made scathing attack on Saha’s decision to leave Kolkata. However, it may be noted that Saha before leaving the Calcutta University wrote to its Syndicate : “I am however, willing to continue to serve my alma mater, provided the university is willing to grant me a graded scale of pay namely Rs. 650-50-1000 plus Rs. 15,000 to be placed immediately at my disposal as my personal research grant.” The Syndicate rejected his request stating that “….in view of the present financial position of the university and in view of the claims of other university teachers, his request cannot be complied with.” And so finally Saha went to the Allahabad University. At Allahabad before he could start research work he had to improve the workshop, the laboratory and the library. Moreover, he found hardly any time for research after discharging heavy teaching responsibilities. But Saha was not to be detracted by adverse conditions. And very soon research papers started appearing from Saha and his students. Among his collaborators at Allahabad were N.K. Sur, P.K. Kichlu, D.S. Kothari, R.C. Majumdar, Atmaram, K.B. Mathur and B.D. Nag Choudhary. After his becoming Fellow of the Royal Society in 1927, the Governor of the United Province, Sir William Morris provided a research grant of Rs. 5,000 per year to Saha’s Department. At Allahabad, besides continuing his research work on astrophysical problems, he initiated and organized research in several other branches of physics viz. statistical mechanics, atomic and molecular spectroscopy, electron affinity of electro-negative elements, active modification of nitrogen, high temperature dissociation of molecules propagation of radio waves in ionosphere and physics of the upper atmosphere. It is here that Saha wrote his famous textbook, A Treatise on Heat, which was first published in 1931 under the title of A Textbook of Heat. The book was written jointly with B.N. Srivastava. C.V. Raman in his foreword to the book wrote : “By undertaking the necessarily laborious task of producing a systematic and up-to-date treatise on the theory of heat, Prof. Saha has earned a claim to the gratitude of the wide circle of readers both in and outside of India, who it is confidently hoped, will study this book and appreciate its merits.” A concise version of this book was published for science graduates. It was tilted Junior Text Book of Heat. He wrote another book (jointly with N.K. Saha ) titled Treatise on Modern Physics. At Allahabad Saha established the United Province Academy of Sciences in 1930. Interestingly the suggestion for establishing such an Academy had come from the Governor of the United Province, Sir Malcolm Hailey. While addressing the scientists of the United Province gathered at Allahabad on the occasion of the Indian Science Congress Association Malcolm said : “Now I am well aware that there are definite limits to the extent to which the efforts of our research workers or students can be directed to these problem (of economic and utilitarian value), and I am also well aware that coordination of their labours cannot be directed from outside. It must be voluntary effort, or at the most, it must be advice given by some Academy of Science which will contain authoritative representatives of all the specialized branches of scientific activity now at work in the province. But if some form of visible co-ordination could be attempted, and if it could be proved to the public that science workers were contributing at least some of their energies in the direction I have suggested, then I believe we should have a far more effective case in calling for that public support and private liberality on which the further progress of scientific work must depend.”

Saha returned to the Calcutta University in July 1938. He became the Palit Professor and Head of the Department of Physics. At that time Shyama Prasad Mookerjee was the Vice Chancellor of the University and who was soon to be succeeded by Sir Mahammed Azizul Haque. After joining Saha immediately got involved in organizing research in the Palit Laboratory. He also took the task of remodeling the MSc syllabus in physics. Saha introduced a general and a special paper in nuclear physics in 1940. One may note that, the phenomenon of the fission, was discovered in 1939 by Otto Hahn (1879-1968) and Fritz Strassmann (1902-80). Saha also added a general paper in quantum mechanics. Commenting on Saha’s research work at the Calcutta University D.S. Kothari wrote: “His researches in Calcutta were concerned largely with the systematics of atomic nuclei, particularly beta-activity, the propagation of electromagnetic waves in the ionosphere, and the problem of the solar corona.”

Saha was a great institution builder. He made the Physics Department of the Allahabad University, which he joined in 1923, as one of the most active centres of research in the country, particularly in the field of spectroscopy. The Department attracted students from all over the country. In 1911 Saha founded the UP Academy of Sciences at Allahabad, which was later renamed as National Academy of Sciences, India. The Academy, which was inaugurated on March 1, 1932, was modelled on the lines of the Asiatic Society of Bengal. Saha was its first President. In 1933 Saha founded the Indian Physical Society at Calcutta. The Society published the Indian Journal Physics. Eminent scientists like Raman, Saha and Krishnan regularly contributed their important papers to the Indian Journal of Physics. With Saha’s initiative National Institute of Sciences of India was established in Calcutta. Its formation was formally announced on January 7, 1935 in the Senate Hall of the Calcutta University under the Chairmanship of the J.H. Hutton. L.L. Fermor was elected the first president of the Institute. The formation of such an All India Academy of Sciences was first proposed by Saha in his Presidential Address of the Indian Science Congress Association in Mumbai (Bombay) in 1934. The National Institute of Sciences was later renamed as the Indian National Academy of Sciences and its headquarters were transferred to New Delhi. Saha was closely associated with the planning and establishment of the Central Glass and Ceramic Research Institute, a constituent laboratory of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, at Kolkata. In 1944 Saha was elected the Honorary Secretary of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science and he was its President during 1946- 50. Saha became the full-time Director of the Laboratories of the Association in 1952, a post he held till his death. Under the leadership of Saha, there was a large-scale expansion of the activities of the Association. As President of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science he built its modern laboratories.

Saha played a significant role in the establishment of departments of Radio Physics and Electronics and Applied physics of the Calcutta University.

In 1950 Saha founded the Institute of Nuclear Physics. The Foundation Stone of the Institute was laid by Dr. Shyama Prasad Mookherjee the then Civil Supply Minister of the Government of India. The institute, which was formally inaugurated by Irene Joliot-Curie on January 11, 1950, was originally situated in the campus of the Calcutta University. Among those who attended the inauguration ceremony were Robert Robinson and J.D. Bernal.

It was Saha, who first introduced nuclear physics in the MSc physics syllabus of the Calcutta University in 1940. He also started a post-MSc course in nuclear science for the country. He initiated steps for building a cyclotron, the first of its kind in the country.

The Conference of Scientific workers in Britain held in July 1946 led to the formation of the World Federation of Scientific Workers. Saha had participated in this Conference and after coming back to India he wrote editorials in the Science and Culture urging Indian scientific workers to form a similar kind of organisation. Explaining the objectives of such an Association Saha wrote: “the aim and objects of the Association are for fuller use of science for national life – for education through meetings and for action in public field.” On some other occasion he wrote: “It is high time for the scientific workers in India that they exert their inherent right to live like decent citizen and shoulder responsibilities for the betterment of their motherland.” The Association for Scientific Workers (India) was eventually formed an 7th July 1947

Saha founded the Indian Science News Association at Calcutta in 1935. Its main objective was to disseminate science amongst the public. The Association started publishing its journal called Science and Culture. On receiving, a copy of the first issue of the Journal, Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose wrote: “The appearance of Science and Culture is to be warmly welcomed not only by those, who are interested in abstract science but also by those who are concerned with nationbuilding in practice. Whatever might have been the views of our older “Nation builders” we younger folk approach the task of nation building in a thoroughly scientific spirit and we desire to be armed with all the knowledge which modern science and culture can afford us. It is not possible however, for political workers with their unending preoccupations to glean that knowledge themselves, it is therefore, for scientists and scientific investigators to come in their rescue.” Saha himself wrote more than 200 articles in Science and Culture on a wide range of topics which included: organization of scientific and industrial research, atomic energy and its industrial use, river valley development projects, planning the national economy, educational reforms and modification of Indian calendar. The journal is presently running in its 68th volume.

Saha wrote extensively on his vision of scientific economic planning for India. It was Saha who persuaded Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, then President of the Indian National Congress, to set up a National Planning Committee. At the beginning M. Visvesvaraya, the most celebrated Indian engineer, was the Chairman of the Committee. However, Saha thought that to have its impact the Committee should be headed by a powerful Congress leader and he persuaded Rabindranath Tagore to convince Jawaharlal Nehru to accept the Chairmanship of the Committee.

Saha was an advocate of the peaceful use of nuclear energy. He had initiated the first Parliament debate on this subject on 10th May 1954. Saha was against the establishment of the Atomic Energy Commission. He was of the view that the researches on nuclear energy could be undertaken in the university sector. In fact he wanted the ‘Indian Atomic Energy Act’ to be scrapped altogether. Saha wanted that the Government should first build up necessary infrastructure and trained manpower before it undertook such a programme. However, in spite of Saha’s opposition the Atomic Energy Commission was created in 1948 under the chairmanship of Homi J. Bhabha. Many people may agree with what D. M. Bose had to say in 1967. “The decision of the Prime Minister (Jawaharlal Nehru) to locate the Department of Atomic Energy and Atomic Energy Commission with Bhabha as Secretary of the former and Chairman of the latter must have caused some disappointment to Saha. Since 1935 Nehru and Saha cooperated in many fields of common interest, including the formation of the planning committee in 1938 by Subhash Chandra Bose with Nehru as Chairman and Saha as an important member. A growing estrangement with the Prime Minister with some of the later decisions may have been one of the factors, which decided Saha to enter politics in 1952. There can be no doubt, however, as the events shaped subsequently that the Prime Minister Nehru was undoubtedly right in entrusting Bhabha with the development of India’s plan for utilization of atomic energy. Bhabha identified himself completely with the development of atomic energy in India. Saha’s interest was many and varied.”

Saha was deeply concerned with the recurring disastrous floods in many Indian rivers. The extensive damage caused by floods in North Bengal in 1923 prompted Acharya Prafulla Chandra Ray to organize relief operation under the aegis of North Bengal Relief Committee. Ray was able to collect a large fund from the general public for the relief work and he was assisted by Subhash Chandra Bose, Meghnad Saha and Satish Chandra Dasgupta. And it was while carrying out the relief work Saha got a first hand experience of the devastating power of floods. Saha wrote about his experience in newspapers and magazines. In his Presidential address to the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai in 1934 he drew specific attention to serious problems caused by floods. He also emphasized the need for a River Research Laboratory. Again in 1938, in his presidential address to the National Institute of Sciences of India he highlighted the danger posed by recurrent floods in Indian rivers particularly in the deltaic ones. In 1943 the flood in Bengal isolated Kolkata from rest of India and Saha wrote extensively on the issue. Saha’s writings and speeches made the government realize the gravity of the situation. As a result the Damodar Valley Enquiry Committee came into being in 1943. The Committee was chaired by the Maharaja of Burdwan. Saha was also a member of the Committee. Saha presented a plan for handling the Damodar river system before the Committee. He also wrote extensively on river control based on modern science and technology. He argued that the model of Tennessee river system under the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in USA could be adapted to the Damodar Valley. At the instance of Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, the then member-in-charge of power and works in the Viceroy’s cabinet, the Government adopted a resolution to set up a Damodar Valley Corporation (DVC) after the model of TVA. The DVC was set up in March 1948. Saha’s interest was not confined to Bengal rivers alone.

Saha’s work relating to reform of Indian calendar was very significant. Saha was the Chairman of the Calendar Reform Committee appointed by the Government of India in 1952 under the aegis of the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. Other members of the Committee were: A. C. Banerjee, K. K. Daftari, J. S. Karandikar, Gorakh Prasad, R. V. Vaidya and N. C. Lahiri. It was Saha’s effort, which led to the formation of the Committee. The task before the Committee was to prepare an accurate calendar based on scientific study, which could be adopted uniformly throughout India. It was a mammoth task. The Committee had to undertake a detailed study of different calendars prevalent in different parts of the country. There were thirty different calendars. The task was further complicated by the fact that with calendar religion and local sentiments were involved. Nehru, in his preface to the Report of the Committee, which was published in 1955, wrote: “They (different calendars) represent past political divisions in the country…now that we have attained Independence, it is obviously desirable that there should be a certain uniformity in the calendar for our civic, social and other purposes and this should be done on a scientific approach to this problem.” Some of the important recommendations of the Committee were:

  1. The Saka era should be used in the unified national calendar. (The year 2002 corresponds to the Saka era of 1923-24.)

  2. The year should start from the day following the vernal equinox (occurs about March 21) day.

  3. A normal year would consist of 365 days while a leap year would have 366 days. After adding seventy-eight to the Saka era, if the sum is
    divisible by four, then it is a leap year. But when the same becomes a multiple of 100 it would be a leap year when it is divisible by 400, otherwise it would be a common year.

  4. Chaitra should be the first month of the year. From Chaitra to Bhadra each month would have thirty-one days and the rest to have thirty days.

According to Saha, large-scale industrialization was the only answer for improving the quality of life. He thought that India had no hope if she failed to develop science and technology. Saha wrote: “The philosophy of kindliness and service to our fellow-men was preached by all founders of great religions, and no doubt some great kings and ministers of religions in every country and at all ages tried to give effect to this (altruistic) philosophy. But the efforts were not successful, for the simple reason that the methods of production of commodities were too indifferent to yield plenty for all, which is an indispensable condition for practical altruism. We can, therefore, hold that so far as individual life is concerned, science has achieved a target aimed at by the great founders of religions in advanced countries of the world. The effects of maldistribution of wealth, due to historical causes, are being rapidly cured by introduction of social laws.”

In 1952 Saha was elected Member of the Parliament as an independent candidate from the North-West Calcutta constituency. Welcoming Saha’s election JBS Haldane said: “May I also be allowed to congratulate him on his recent successful reentry recently into politics. India (and Britain too) needs men who will bring some understanding of science to the government of the country. Even those who do not share his political views may rejoice that he can make his voice heard in the council of the people.” Many
wonder why Saha, an internationally known scientists decided to fight election.

Saha died suddenly due to a massive heart attack on his way to the office of the Planning Commission on 16 February 1956. As D. S. Kothari one of Saha’s illustrious students, wrote: “The life of Saha was in a sense an integral part of the growth of scientific research and progress in India and the effect of his views and personality would be felt for a long time to come in almost every aspect of scientific activity in the country. His dedication to science, his forthrightness and utter disregard of personal comforts in the pursuit of his chosen vocation will long remain an inspiration and an example.”

Books written by Meghnad Saha

  1. The Principles of Relativity (with S.N. Bose) Calcutta University, Calcutta, 1920. (It was a translation of Einstein’s papers on theory of relativity).
  2. Treatise on Heat (with B.N. Srivastava), Indian Press, Allahabad, 1931.
  3. Junior Text-Book on Heat (with B.N. Srivastava), Indian Press, Allahabad, 1932.
  4. Treatise on Modern Physics, Vol-1 (with N.K. Saha) Indian Press, Allahabad, 1934.
  5. My Experience in Soviet Russia, Bookman Inc, Calcutta, 1947.


For Further Reading

  1. Meghnad Saha by Santimay Chatterjee and Enakshi Chatterjee, National Book Trust, New Delhi 1984.

  2. Meghnad Saha by S.B. Karmohapatra, Publications Division, Govt. of India, New Delhi, 1997

  3. Meghnad Saha by D.S. Kothari in biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the National Institute of Sciences of India (Vol. 2), New Delhi 1970.

  4. Professor Meghnad Saha, His Life, Work and Philosophy, Edited by Samarendra Nath Sen, Meghnad Saha 60th Birthday Committee, Calcutta, 1954.

  5. Thirty Years of the Institute of Nuclear Physics, Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, 1981.

  6. Collected Scientific Papers of Meghnad Saha, Edited by Santimay Chatterjee, Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi 1969.

  7. Collected Works of Meghnad Saha Edited by Santimay Chatterjee, Orient Longman Ltd., Calcutta, 1982-1993.

  8. Science and Culture, Golden Jubilee Volume, Indian Science News Association, Calcutta, 1985

  9. Science & Culture, Vols. 1-21, Indian Science News Association, Calcutta, 1936-55.

  10. Jawaharlal Nehru on Science, Edited by Baldev Singh, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi 1986.