Professor BV Sreekantan, former director of the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), passed away at the age of 94 in Bangalore on Sunday, October 27. He was a protege of Homi Jehangir Bhabha, father of the Indian nuclear program, and is widely credited with establishing field stations of TIFR which subsequently became independent research centres.
Badanaval Venkatasubba Sreekantan was born in Nanjangud in the former state of Mysore. After obtaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics and wireless communications respectively from the Central College, Mysore University, he joined as a research scholar in the Department of Communication Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. A year later, he was recruited as a research student by Bhabha who had set up TIFR in Mumbai. There he rose to become a professor in 1963 and its director in 1975. He held the post till 1987.
With support from Bhabha and his successor, MGK Menon, Sreekantan built a research group to study the characteristics of high energy cosmic rays using a variety of detectors at ground level, mountain altitude, as well as in deep underground mines. Early experiments by him at the Kolar Gold Field (KGF) led to studies of energetic muons at a depth of up to 2,760 metres. This paved the way for the famous experiment to search for proton decay later on. He was also key to setting up of research groups dedicated to X-ray astronomy and gamma-ray astronomy in TIFR.
Under his leadership, TIFR decided to join high energy physics research at the accelerator facilities of CERN. He played a key role in the creation and nurturing of new facilities and centres of TIFR in different parts of the country. During the Fifth Plan period, he proposed the setting up of Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, National Centre for Biological Sciences, National Centre for Radio Astrophysics, and TIFR Centre for Applicable Mathematics.
His involvement with the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) was also notable. Till 1985, the institute functioned under the Department of Meteorology in the Ministry of Civil Aviation. He helped bring IIA under the Department of Science and Technology (DST) as an autonomous institution.
Prof Sreekantan was known for simplicity and human values. “I never saw him coming to the institute using his official car. He chose to walk from his residence to the institute instead. Before going to his office, he would visit basement labs, workshops, the garden, and sometimes talk to tradesmen in the workshop, enquiring about their problems. Through this process he made himself available to everyone in the Institute,” recalled Prof Naba Mandal, former scientist who had joined TIFR in 1977.
“Prof Sreekantan was a champion of science and academia in the country. When asked for his advice on going abroad, he encouraged us to do so but asked us to make sure we eventually return and contribute to the development of science in India. It was his continuous support and encouragement that gave us the confidence to conceptualize the India-based Neutrino Observatory project,” Prof Mandal added.
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The author, Dinesh Sharma, is Managing Editor at India Science Wire.