Meghnad Saha: One Of India’s Greatest Astrophysicist

Meghnad Saha: One Of India's Greatest Astrophysicist

Meghnad Saha, an Indian astrophysicist, is widely known for his eponymous Saha ionisation equation. His seminal work resulting in the thermal ionisation equation (Saha ionisation equation) has ushered in a new epoch of astrophysics.

His equation is applied to interpreting the stellar (relating to a star) spectra. This spectrum is characteristic of the chemical composition of the light source.

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.” – Svein Rosseland

Through the Saha equation, we can understand a relationship between the temperature of the light source, and the appearance and composition of the spectrum. Using this information, we can thus figure out either the temperature of the star or the relative abundance of the chemical elements that make up the star.

His contributions are considered very important to world science and are a historically important landmark in modern Indian Science.

Meghnad Saha’s Education

Meghnad N. Saha was born on October 06, 1893, in the village of Shaoratoli in the Dhaka (then Dacca) district (now in Bangladesh) of undivided India still under British Raj.

He was the fifth child of his parents, Jagannath Saha, a petty shopkeeper and Bhubaneswari Devi. Due to the social and financial conditions of their family, it appeared improbable that Meghnad would pursue education. Some of his brothers had already quit school to earn bread by working elsewhere.

Dr. Meghnad Saha
Dr. Meghnad Saha (Source)

Meghnad, however, joined the village primary school at age 7 and displayed an unusual aptitude towards education and knowledge.

With no middle school in his village, it seemed unlikely that he would continue to receive further education. However, through his brother Jainath’s help, both financially and otherwise he joined a school 10 km away.

He would receive boarding and lodging from a local doctor, in exchange for doing some household chores. Meghnad’s early life was one of many struggles.

In 1905, Lord Curzon, the then Viceroy of British India, had decided to partition Bengal into East and West Bengal. There was a widespread political disturbance. Saha was involved in a nationalism protest. during this disturbance. At that time, the then Bengal Governor, Sir Bamfylde Fuller, visited the Dhaka Collegiate School. The collegiate school rusticated Saha for participating in the movement.

Fortunately, a private school, named Kishori Lal Jubilee School, accepted Saha with a free studentship and a stipend. In 1909, Saha would clear the entrance exams to the Dhaka College from Kishori Lal Jubilee School, standing first among all the candidates from then East Bengal.

At Presidency College

After completing his Intermediate Examinations of the Calcutta University in 1911 from the Dhaka College, Dhaka, he would go on to study at Presidency College, Kolkata.

At Presidency College, he would interact with many pioneers of modern science in India, including the likes of Satyendra Nath Bose (of Bose-Einstein condensate fame), Jnan Ghosh (noted chemist) and J. N. Mukherjee (all who were his classmates).

His teachers included Prafulla Chandra Ray in chemistry and Jagadis Chandra Bose in physics, both big wigs in Indian science.

Seated (L to R): Meghnad Saha, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Jnan Chandra Ghosh. Standing (L to R): Snehamoy Dutt, Satyendra Nath Bose, Debendra Mohan Bose, N R Sen, Jnanendra Nath Mukherjee, N C Nag
Seated (L to R): Meghnad Saha, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Jnan Chandra Ghosh. Standing (L to R): Snehamoy Dutt, Satyendra Nath Bose, Debendra Mohan Bose, N R Sen, Jnanendra Nath Mukherjee, N C Nag. (Source)

Meghnad Saha would get his Bachelors in Mathematics with Honours in 1913 and an MSc. in Applied Mathematics in 1915. Saha would stand second in class for both examinations, the first place going to Satyendra Nath Bose in both cases!

Saha’s Career in Science

Following the completion of their education, Meghnad Saha and S.N. Bose were appointed as lecturers in the Department of Mathematics at the University College of Science under the Calcutta University. Both of them moved on to the Physics Department, where a year later C.V. Raman joined as the Patil Professor of Physics in 1917.

Meghnad along with teaching postgraduate students wished to conduct research. However, he faced the barriers of having no research facility, lack of funds and no guide. At this point in time, his research came from self-studies and self-funding.

Nevertheless, Saha wrote many papers on diverse topics. This resulted in him being awarded a Doctor of Science of the Calcutta University in 1919.

Development of Saha Equation

Saha was awarded the Premchand Roychand Scholarship for his dissertation on the ‘Harvard Classification of Stellar Spectra’. The money he earned from the scholarship allowed him to go to Europe for two years. In Europe, he worked in the laboratory of Alfred Fowler and Walther Nernst’s (known for developing the Nernst equation).

He had begun developing and writing a theory of ionisation (which would become the Saha Equation). It was in these labs that he did experimental work towards the equation.

The Saha Equation would take birth in this time frame, changing astrophysics with many regarding his research as seminal in the field of astrophysics.

He returned to India in November 1921 joining University of Calcutta, as the Khaira Professor of Physics. However troubled by lack of funds, which prevented him from doing further research, he moved to Allahabad University.

He would publish many influential papers and conduct superb research. This resulted in him becoming a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1927. He eventually returned to Calcutta University as Palit Professor and head of the Department of Physics in 1938. 

A Man Who Helped Build India

Saha was involved in science education at the university level. He improved the curriculum at both Allahabad and Calcutta University. He also introduced novel fields of study such as nuclear physics in the University of Calcutta.

His book ‘A Treatise on Heat’ co-written with B.N. Srivastava became a standard textbook for physics. His work resulted in the Physics Department at Allahabad University becoming one of the most popular centres for physics. 

Saha was a firm believer that public policy must be influenced by science and technology to ensure the growth of the nation. He wished for the same and played a critical role in shaping modern India, and is thus considered a nation and institution builder.

To mark Saha's birth centenary year, India post has issued 100 Paisa (1 Rupee) commemorative stamp on 23 December 1993.
To mark Saha’s birth centenary year, India post has issued 100 Paisa (1 Rupee) commemorative stamp on 23 December 1993. (Source)

In 1911, Saha founded the UP Academy of Sciences at Allahabad (later renamed as National Academy of Sciences). In 1933, Saha founded the Indian Physical Society at Calcutta.

Saha helped in the development of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Sciences. He was the Honorary Secretary of the Association in 1944, becoming President during 1946 – 50, eventually becoming Director till his death in 1956. It was under his tenure that IACS developed. In particular, Saha helped build many of IACS’s multiple modern laboratories. Saha also founded the Institute of Nuclear Physics (now Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics) in 1950.

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.

National Planning Committee and Politics

Saha wrote extensively on his vision of scientific economic planning for India. Under this impetus he convinced the then Congress President Subash Chandra Bose to set up a National Planning Committee

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

It was around this time Meghnad Saha was becoming involved in politics. He was actively involved in the National Planning Committee. Saha also worked towards making India a developing nation, moving away from an under-developed one, by working towards systematic changes in the nation’s approach towards science and technology.

Saha was deeply troubled by flooding of rivers in the Bengal Province. He was affected severely by the floods as a child as well as the floods in North Bengal in 1923, and the 1948 floods moved toward writing and actively talking about the issues.

His work resulted in the creation of the Damodar Valley Enquiry Committee in 1943, and the creation of the original plan of the Damodar Valley Project under his guidance. With this Saha laid groundwork for many river projects to come.

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. Under his leadership, the committee worked towards the establishment of a uniform calendar for the nation.

Saha contested and won as an independent candidate from the North-West Calcutta constituency to become a Member of the Parliament in 1952. He would do massive work in the fields of areas of Education, Refugee and Rehabilitation, Atomic Energy, Multipurpose River Projects and Flood Control and long term planning as an MP.

Saha’s Demise

Saha died suddenly due to a massive heart attack on his way to the office of the Planning Commission on 16 February 1956. Saha had played an integral part in the development of science and technology in India, as well as it’s integration to the planning of the nation. His work resulted in growth of scientific research and progress in India.

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