Who Applies to be an Indian Nuclear Scientist

The fuss around the film ‘Oppenheimer’ gives me a chance to recount what happened when I set out, in 2006, to find out who exactly is an Indian nuclear scientist. 

The Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai is a sprawling reservoir of India’s nuclear programme that stands on the edge of a creek, shrouded by mangroves and official secrets. There is an unmistakable touch of middle India. Here, security primarily means jobs. To the urban youth, India’s atomic technology may be something glorious, but the fact is that they almost never apply. Nor do the graduates from the Indian Institutes of Technology and the next two or three layers of Indian engineering’s top soil. For some time now, this country’s nuclear programme has been run by valiant strugglers from villages and small towns who mostly come from colleges not many have heard of. To be absorbed by the BARC for a one-year training programme after which they will become nuclear scientists and engineers.

The Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) told me they get over 10, 000 applications every year for just about 300 research positions in the BARC and other satellite research centres. They come from places like Airty, Digras and Barelli. Job interviews, faculty members say, could be eventful.

 An applicant was asked to explain The Uncertainty Principle, a theory which is at the heart of quantum mechanics. “Sir,” he said, “It means everything in life is uncertain.” When reminded of Werner Heisenberg and that the question was scientific in nature, not philosophical, the boy confessed that he had not heard of the man. Dr.  RR Puri, head of Human Resource, remembered asking a boy about photo-electric effect, the discovery that was a significant reason why a Nobel was awarded to Albert Einstein. The boy said, “You know photo. You know electric. Combine the two.” Dr S Datta remembered asking, “Why do Kolkata trams run on Direct Current and not Alternating Current.” The applicant said, “If it uses Alternating Current, the tram will go forward and back.”

Some applicants told their interviewers candidly that they had come merely to see Mumbai and they asked the interviewers to please sign the travel allowance slip for “second class rail travel” from their home towns, a new improvement from an earlier offer to pay, “the lowest fare by the shortest route”.

Denied the easy talent that lands at the doorstep of other fields, BARC tries hard to find a gem. Interviews here are long patient hearings and last for about three months. With most of the applicants not fluent in English or even Hindi, a resting professor in the canteen mess sometimes gets an emergency call to arrive at the interview session because he is the only one who understands, say, Malayalam.

Interviews turn melancholic too when some applicants, fearing rejection, cry and plead, “Ask me one more questions, sir, just one more.” There are long spells during the interviews when, “the future of India’s nuclear programme seems to be bleak,” as Dr. RB Grover, director of Homi Bhabha National Institute told me. “But then a bright chap comes along and the mood swings to sheer joy and great hopes for the future.”

In met some students compass. Akshat Kakkar, in a blue shirt and pink tie, was from Barelli in Uttar Pradesh. Every time he went back home, his neighbours asked, “Have you seen a nuclear bomb? How big is it? Have you touched it?” His uncle in fact thought that Bombay got its name for housing an atomic bomb.

Ashish Dike, son of a cotton farmer in Vidarbha’s Kalgaon village, finds it hard to believe that there are people in the world who object to nuclear technology. “In some villages in the Satara district, people think that windmills drive away the rains. People who are against clean energy like nuclear power are as ignorant.” Radiation, that much maligned thing in the outside world, is almost loved in BARC. “Without radiation, species will not mutate,” a senior scientist whispered to me. “There will be no evolution”.

They do not have to sell this hard to India’s villagers where there is great pride around the Indian nuclear programme. ”There is so much patriotism in small towns,” professor Grover told me. “It’s they who really take pride in the nation.” And it is from there that most of the students come today. Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, a senior faculty member told me, “is run by villages”.

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