Dr P K Iyengar, one of the pioneers who along with his team toiled tirelessly to place India in the once forbidden, exclusive nuclear club is no more. He was 80.
He joined the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) in 1952.He served DAE in many capacities before retiring as Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission. He inspired a generation of young scientists and engineers in the field of nuclear science and technology.
He and Dr Raja Ramanna believed that if we want to get the most talented people in a developing country like India, we have to choose every year a few hundred from the vast pool of academically sound young people. If ten out of two hundred turn out to be outstanding, he rated this “statistical operation” as successful.
Iyengar was immensely proud of the multidisciplinary ambience provided at Trombay, which turned the outstanding young people, he chose, into leaders as they enhanced their analytic skills and creativity.
In 1956, he went to Chalk River, Canada; his association with Bertram Neville Brockhouse, later a Nobel Laureate, became a turning point in his career.
They measured the dispersion relations based on Born’s theory of lattice dynamics in germanium. Within three years, they published five papers on the neutron spectrum of germanium and manganese compounds.
When Brockhouse passed away, Dr Iyengar acknowledged him as his mentor and friend (Current Science, 10 December 2003). Brockhouse discovered a new branch of research, the neutron analogue of Raman Effect. Brockhouse-Iyengar collaboration turned out to be one of the most productive for India.
After Iyengar’s return to India, K R Rao, B A Dasannacharya and A P Roy worked with Brockhouse at Chalkriver and later after 1962, at McMaster University. In his Nobel Lecture titled “Slow neutron spectroscopy and the grand atlas of the physical world”, Dr, Brockhouse referred to his papers with Dr Iyengar and those with other collaborators. Iyengar set up a world class neutron scattering group in Trombay.
Iyengar’s enthusiasm for physics was infectious. He argued, cajoled and coaxed and woke up every one from deep slumber. Every minute spent with him was exciting and informative. Despite his indifferent health, he kept himself up to date.
He questioned every one constantly. “Why should they not use plutonium carbide as fuel for the fast breeder reactor?’, “They” meant scientists in the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR)! Is not fabricating plutonium carbide fuel very challenging? “Every one knows enough about plutonium oxide; what is so innovative about it?
In the next few minutes, he praised Brazil for making uranium enrichment technology more efficient. Tweaking the design of the rotors did the trick, he revealed. From fission to fusion, from “mega- gauss reactions” to superconductivity, he drove home his ideas effortlessly.
According to M. Srinvasan, a close associate, Iyengar was very sharp in his observations and had a keen eye for detail. He was strong in engineering design and had an elephantine memory.
Srinvasan remembers that when news papers covered “cold fusion”, Dr Iyengar who was always interested in exciting new things, convened a meeting of neutron physicists, chemists, chemical engineers, etc. Within six weeks, 12 groups started working on it.
Iyengar did not forgive me for writing an editorial titled “Fuss about fusion: more heat than light” in The AERB Newsletter (5, 1, 1989).The edit reflected the views of mainstream scientists. He admonished me for relying on popular magazines such as the New Scientist. Thereafter, whenever we met, he talked about the new developments in the field of “Low Energy Nuclear Reactions”.
Dr M R Iyer, another colleague remembers that Iyengar, a storehouse of anecdotes credited Dr A K Ganguly, a pioneering safety specialist with saving installations at Kalpakkam when 2004 tsunami stuck. In the seventies, Dr Ganguly insisted that key components near the coast must be installed on high pedestals. According to Iyengar, safety committee members even taunted Dr Ganguly as to "who is this Japanese girl: Tsunami?”
A scientometric portrait of Iyengar drawn by Kademani and co-workers in Library Science in 1994 revealed that he is eminently qualified to be a role model for the younger generation. He published prolifically in many technical journals. Many who retired from Trombay will miss their mentor; India will miss a restless leader who fearlessly argued for self reliance in very field of endeavour.
*[The writer is a Raja Ramanna Fellow, Department of Atomic Energy. He can be accessed at firstname.lastname@example.org ]