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The Bureaucrat and the Stargazer

Updated on: 20 January,2009 07:04 AM IST  | 
Indira Chowdhury |

On July 2 1949, a comet was recorded on a photographic plate taken at the Oak Ridge Station at the Harvard Observatory

The Bureaucrat and the Stargazer

On July 2 1949, a comet was recorded on a photographic plate taken at the Oak Ridge Station at the Harvard Observatory. This was a purely accidental discovery but among those who discovered it was an Indian student who was working towards his doctoral degree at Harvard. The ripples of this discovery reached India soon enough, but there were no congratulations offered from the government; the government felt that none was due. The Education Department of the Indian Embassy in Washington DC sharply reprimanded the young man asking him to focus on his research and implying that he should not go about discovering comets! The reprove came in the wake of a cable that the Hyderabad government had sent the Embassy instructing them to convey to the student that he was to undertake research according to the terms of his scholarship. "See that your government's wishes are carried out in every respect," the letter commanded.

At that time, Harvard University's astrophysics department was home to a galaxy of astrophysicists and astronomers among them Harlowe Shapley, Bart Bok, Donald Menzel, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin and Fred Whipple. It was Fred Whipple who undertook to write an amusing rejoinder to the bureaucrat. "This is the first occasion in my experience," Whipple wrote, "in which a foreign government has taken on itself the criticism of our educational methods in the Astronomy Department of Harvard University." It would be better for the Hyderabad government, he suggested, to communicate the reasons for their criticism to the Harvard authorities instead of "reprimanding the student in such a way that he finds it difficult to follow our guidance in his advance education."u00a0 Whipple then explained that the nature of the discovery was purely accidental the student's failure to note this unusual object on his photographic plates would have been a sin of scientific omission' and his failure to announce the discovery would have been a serious neglect of his duty to the scientific world'.

Explaining the importance of background training that is so necessary for doctoral studies, Whipple sardonically pointed out that if the Government insisted on the student confining his research to a narrow filed then it had erred in sending him to Harvard for sure.u00a0u00a0

This delightful exchange is preserved in the Archives of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics because the student in question was none other than their Founder Director M K Vainu Bappu. Bappu's passion for astronomy was kindled early; not unusual given the fact that his father was an astronomer in Nizamia observatory that was founded by Nawab Zafar Jung in 1909. In 1948 when the astronomer Harlow Shapley came to India, the twenty-one year old Bappu took the opportunity to meet him. The following year, Bappu set sail for Harvard to do a PhD on Photoelectric photometry of Eclipsing Variables'. The Government of Hyderabad had given him a scholarship. That was what stirred up the storm I began this column with.

In 1957 Bappu along with Olin Wilson described what is now called the Wilson-Bappu effect' which opened up for research the field of stellar chromospheres.

After his return to India, Bappu revived optical astronomy in India. In 1971 he was the moving spirit behind the creation of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. Bappu was also the first Indian President of the International Astronomical Union.

The Indian bureaucracy has not changed much since Bappu's time, where misrecognition all too often masks itself in self-importance.

Even so, I am sure many bureaucrats would be shocked and embarrassed to hear that Bappu remains the only Indian to have a comet named after him - the very same one he had accidentally observed while stargazing at Harvard. That comet is called Bappu-Newkirk-Whipple after the two discoverers.

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