Bibha Chowdhury
Biography,  Science

Bibha Chowdhury: A Forgotten Jewel of India

How many times you have heard the word ‘women empowerment in India’?

I am sure you have heard many times.

Now how many times have you heard about the name ‘Bibha Chowdhury’?

Probably never. Probably you are hearing this name for the first time.

You might think what is the connection between Bibha Chowdhury and women empowerment in India.

There is a strong connection, but unfortunately, we haven’t heard about her anywhere. Even to know about her in Google you have to scratch your head and dig deeper.

The youth of a country becomes who they admire and follow as their role model.

You can imagine if people of this country don’t even know about such people, how can they even admire and appreciate them.

Whether you have heard about ‘Bibha Chowdhury or not, through this article I am going to give you a glimpse of her life so that you could know about her life and contributions and why I am correlating her with women empowerment in India.

Who is Bibha Chowdhury?

Bibha Chowdhury is a star in the sky.

I am not joking. Recently, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has honored Bibha Chowdhury by naming a white-yellow star in our galaxy as ‘Bibha’.

Such is her contribution but unfortunately her own countrymen don’t recognize her.

Bibha Chowdhury is the first woman particle physicist of India.

Early Life and Education of Bibha Chowdhury

Bibha Chowdhury was born in 1913, in Hooghly, West Bengal. Her father Banku Bihari Chowdhury was a doctor and her mother Urmila Devi was a Brahmo (followed the doctrines of Brahmo Samaj).

The teachings of Brahmo Samaj (established by Raja Rammohan Roy) remained a great influence throughout her life.

Her family was zamindars of Bhandarhati in the district of Hooghly in
Bengal. Being from a well to do family, she got the chance to study at that time.

In those days, higher education among women was almost nonexistent
in India.

After finishing school, she studied B.Sc from Scottish Church College in Calcutta. Bibha completed her Masters in Physics in 1936 from the University of Calcutta.

She was the only woman to study Physics in her entire class. It’s no wonder that even today Physics is considered to be a subject dominated by men.

After obtaining her M.Sc. degree she joined Calcutta University to do research in physics under the guidance of D.M. Bose who was then a well-known Professor of Physics.

Later in 1937, DM Bose joined Bose institute as the director. DM Bose or Debendra Mohan Bose was the nephew of famous scientist Jagadish Chandra Bose.

Bibha Chowdhury was working there on discovery of mesons (a kind of subatomic particles) using photographic plates.

While working on Bose Institute she published three scientific papers consecutively in ‘Nature’ journal.

Unfortunately, Bibha Chowdhury and DM Bose could not continue their further investigation on subatomic particles due to the non-availability of more sensitive emulsion plates during the war years (2nd world war).

Seven years after Bibha’s discovery of Mesons, C. F. Powell, an English Physicist made the same discovery of pi-mesons and muons using the same technique as used by Bibha Chowdhury and DM Bose.

C.F. Powell went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1950. Although he acknowledged the work of Bibha Chowdhury and DM Bose, the work of Bibha remained in the backdoor.

She could have won the Nobel Prize with a little support from his own country.

The Journey Abroad

Due to problems in getting materials to carry out quality research, DM Bose decided to discontinue the field of cosmic ray research.

Thus Bibha Chowdhury left Bose Institute and decided to join the lab of P. M.S. Blackett at Manchester University for her Ph.D. in 1945.

There she started working on the extensive air showers in cosmic rays. Such research studies were one of the most important investigations in particle physics at that time.

A local newspaper named ‘The Manchester Herald’ took an interview with her. The newspaper published her interview that said-

“Bibha Chowdhuri’s particular programme is the study of extensive air showers caused when cosmic rays enter the earth’s atmosphere from the interstellar spaces. A cosmic ray touching a nuclear particle produces a shower, which extends itself by scattering in lower altitudes.”

She got her Ph.D in 1952.

Bibha Chowdhury Thesis
Thesis Cover of Bibha Chowdhuri. Image Courtesy: Roy, S.C. and Singh, R.(2018) Indian Journal of History of Science, 53 (3) 356–373

Return to India

After obtaining her Ph.D. She returned to India and joined TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research).

She is the first woman scientist to join TIFR.

In 1957, she joined the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad that was headed by Vikram Sarabhai (Father of ISRO).

Bibha Chowdhury was intensely involved with the Kolar Gold Field (KGF) experiment.

KGF experiments involved the detection of various subatomic particles using particle detectors deep underground.

If you wish you can read more about KGF experiments.

In fact, at that time of 1960-1980, Indian particle physicists were very active and pioneers in building particle detectors. But due to lack of support and funding, their projects remained unfinished.

During her scientific career at Bose Institute, Manchester University, and TIFR, Bibha Chowdhury published a good number of papers in reputed foreign journals.

Bibha Chowdhury
Bibha Chowdhury at a conference in Italy. Image Courtesy: From the book ‘ A Jewel Unearthed: Bibha Chowdhury’ by Rajinder Singh and Suprakash C. Roy.

But while working at PRL, she preferred to publish her papers on Indian journals that are published by the Indian Academy of Science, even though she could have published those works on many foreign journals.

At Physical research laboratory (PRL), Ahemdabad, she also supervised some Ph.D. students. One of her student Dr. Y. C. Saxena recalled her as-

“My first meeting with Dr. Bibha Chowdhuri was during the course work, which I was taking as a Research Scholar, at Physical Research Laboratory (PRL), Ahmedabad in the year 1964. She gave us a course on Interaction of High Energy Particle and Matter and I was highly impressed by the way she taught.”

“At that time there was a feeling in the Research
Scholars at PRL that she was a tough person to work with, which turned out to be totally misplaced as I discovered during my work with her for the next several years.”

Back to Kolkata and Later Life

After the Kolar Gold Field experiment, Bibha had planned to perform a new experiment at Mount Abu on radio frequency emission associated with extensive air showers.

But due to sudden demise of Bikram Sarabhai, the plan never came to existence.

She moved back to Kolkata after taking voluntary retirement from PRL. In Kolkata, she continued her research work at the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics.

She also collaborated with the scientists of the Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science (IACS) and the University of Calcutta for her work.

Her last paper was published in 1990. She died on June 2, 1991. This shows that she was an active researcher until her death.

Conclusion

Thanks to Dr. Rajinder Singh and Suprakash C. Roy who have written a book on the life and work of Bibha Chowdhury named ‘A Jewel Unearthed: The story of an Indian Scientist’.

Because of them I got to know about this forgotten woman.

There is no doubt that Bibha Chowdhury made very significant contributions in the realm of Physics. Her indomitable spirit to pursue science is something to take inspiration from.

She is truly a forgotten jewel of India.

A local newspaper of Manchester took an interview of her which they titled as ‘Meet India’s New Woman Scientist — She has an eye for cosmic rays’.

She said in that interview-

“Women are terrified of physics — that is the trouble. It is a tragedy that we have so few women physicists today. In this age when science, and physics particularly, is more important than ever, women should study atomic power; if they don’t understand how it works, how can they help decide how it should be used?” The reporter was very impressed with her and quoted “I am certain that she will undertake another task too when she gets home; she will try to persuade more Indian girls to follow in her own distinguished footsteps

For people who have done something worthwhile, what matters most is not the prizes or awards but the recognition and respect from his/her own people.

And we have certainly failed in that.

Most people in this country haven’t heard about Bibha Chowdhury. She devoted her entire life to Science but this country never appreciated her effort, her endeavors.

As a citizen of India and as a scholar what frustrates me most is that people from foreign countries respect our scientists more than what we do.

We fail to even recognize them.

People from United States, France, Germany, Britain, etc. has to come forward and say-

Hey look, he/she has contributed significantly in this field, don’t you know him/her?’

India has a glorious past in Science and in other fields also. If you as a citizen, as a youth not going to read about them, learn from them, then who will?

There is quote I remember of Idowu Koyenikan (an Author)-

“Show me the heroes that the youth of your country look up to, and I will tell you the future of your country.

Who are you looking up to?

Have you choosen the correct heroes?

What are your thoughts on ‘Bibha Chowdhury’ and who are your heroes?

Let me know in the comment section.

If you want to get my articles in your inbox every Sunday then you can subscribe below

Source:

  1. A Jewel Unearthed: Bibha Chowdhury by Rajinder Singh and Supraksh C. Roy
  2. A short version of the book on ResearchGate.
  3. Star named after Bibha Chowdhury
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