Dr Raja Ramanna, the man behind Pokhran I, an eminent nuclear physicist, technologist, administrator, a gifted musician, Sanskrit scholar.
Thread on another of the great scientists of modern India.
Dr. Raja Ramanna, born on January 28, 1925 in Tiptur, located in Tumkur district, to Ramanna and Rukmini, he was a student of Bishop Cotton’s, Bangalore and later Madras Christian College, where he studied arts and literature.
His mother came from a well to do family, daughter of a district judge, with a passion for literature. She was fluent in English as well as Kannada, composing poems and articles. His father was in the judicial service, a sports enthusiast.
While his early education was in Mysore, he later joined the Bishop Cotton School in Bangalore, where he developed an interest for classical music. He would later graduate from MCC with a degree in Physics, as well as a BA in Classical Music, his twin passions.
And finish his Post Graduation in Physics from Bombay University later on, as well as a Post Graduation in Music too.He got his PhD in Nuclear Physics from King;s College, London in 1954 and did his research at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment where he gained expertise.
Along with his work in nuclear Physics, Ramanna also continued to follow his passion in Classical Western Music, Western Philosophy, straddling two different worlds at the same time.
On his return to India, he joined BARC, where he worked under Homi Bhabha on classified nuclear projects, whom he considered his major influence. He had earlier met Bhabha in 1944, through Dr Alfred Mistoswki, of the Trinity College of Music.
He joined TIFR on December 1, 1949 when it was still in it’s development phase, and began to work on nuclear fission. He would soon contribute in several areas of nuclear physics, as well as organizing the physics program at BARC.
When India’s first research reactor Apsara was launched in 1956, Ramanna looked after the neutronic experiments, while A.S. Rao was the electronics specialist in cosmic ray studies, as well as the control and instrumentation work.
Homi Sethna managed the logistics support, heading the Indian Rare Earths Ltd, that supplied the material for the swimming pool reactor, while K.S.Singhvi handled the theoretical physics of the reactor,
Ramanna would make significant contribution in the process of neutron thermalisation, slowing down constants in water and berrylium oxide by using a pulsed neutron source. The neutron spectra emerging out of these moderating assemblies were also studied.
Apsara, once commissioned, made intense thermal neutron beams available for basic research, motivating Ramanna to undertake a program of experimental investigations of secondary radiations, emitted in thermal neutron-induced fission of U235.
The stochastic theory of fragment mass and charge distributions in fission is a unique contribution of Ramanna to fission theory, based on the model of a random exchange of nucleons between the two nascent fission fragments prior to scission.
The theory, could explain most of the observed features of fragment mass and charge distribution in low energy fission and their dependence on the excitation energy of the fissioning nucleus.
With the sudden death of Bhabha, it was Ramanna who too over as directing officer of India’s still fledgling nuclear program, as well as taking the initiative to develop the first nuke as well as the Pokhran Test site.
Ramanna designed and developed the first nuclear weapon in India, as well as sourcing the material needed. In 1974, he met Indira Gandhi and informed her, that India was ready to conduct nuclear tests on it’s own.
With Indira giving permission, he travelled all the way to Pokhran where the nuclear Test site was set up by him earlier. All the preparations for the test were conducted under extreme secrecy.
The first nuclear device in India was flown from Trombay to Pokhran, as Ramanna along with his team, had it installed, and made the necessary preparation in time for Indira Gandhi’s visit.
May 1974, Operation Smiling Buddha

India’s first ever nuclear test. The man behind it Dr. Raja Ramanna, along with Dr. Homi Sethna, India entered the exclusive nuclear club.
While Indira rewarded Dr. Ramanna with the Padma Vibhushan, Saddam Hussein, approached him in 1978, when he was on a visit to Baghdad to develop their nuclear bomb.
You have done enough for your country; don’t go back. Stay here and take over our nuclear programme. I will pay you whatever you want.- Saddam Hussein to Dr. Raja Ramanna.
Needless to say Dr. Ramanna was literally scared out of his wits by Saddam’s proposal, and after a sleepless night, took the first flight out of Baghdad, that was one narrow escape for him.
In his later years however Ramanna called for peaceful use of nuclear energy, and advocated disarmament. He would later serve as director of DRDO, and was a scientific advisor to the Defense Ministry in 2000.
He was a gifted musician too, an expert piano player. He authored a book on The Structure of Music in Raga And Western Systems. His autobiography Years of Pilgrimage is worth a read too.
He also served for some time as Minister of State for Defense in the VP Singh Govt, and was a nominated member of Rajya Sabha from 1997-2003. And was closely associated with IIT, Mumbai.
Dr Raja Ramanna passed away on Sept 24,2004 at the age of 79, but his legacy would forever remain in the form of Pokhran I, and his sterling work in India’s nuclear program, especially after the sudden death of Bhabha.

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