“His life was a part of the growth of the scientific research and progress in India”. That is how the late professor D.S Kothari described the contribution of Meghnad Saha (1893-1956), one of India’s top scientists. According to the Scientific American, the Saha equation became the foundation in the field of astrophysics. As Jayant Narlikar puts it, Saha’s ionizing equation, which opened the door to Stellar Astrophysics, was one of the top ten achievements of the 20th century in Indian science and could be considered in the Nobel Prize class. Indeed, Saha was twice nominated for the Nobel Prize.
Simply stated, the equation states that when an element in heated to a very high temperature, the electrons in its atoms get enough energy to break free from the atom. This process is called thermal ionizing. This is one of the basic tools of interpretation for the spectra of stars. The equation gives a relationship between free particles and those bound in the atom.
As prof Kothari puts it:’ The theory of ionization introduced a new epoch in astrophysics by proving for the first time a straightforward interpretation of the different classes of stellar spectra in terms of the physical condition prevailing in the stellar atmosphere’.
As a young student, Saha struggled to maintain himself once he was thrown out the school for not wearing shoes (he could not afford them!), as it was considered a mark of disrespect to the visiting governor of Bengal!
Saha had a brilliant academic carrier. Along with S.N Bose, he translated Einstein’s theory of relatively from German into English. Saha persuaded Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose to set up a national planning committee. Later, he urged Gurudev Tagore to persuade Pandit Nehru to head the committee. Pandit Nehru later set up a committee to reform the Indian calendar under the chairmanship of Saha. As a result, the Saka era was adopted, wherein a new year of 365 days will begin from the day after the vernal equinox.
Two years before India’s independence, a committee under the chairmanship of Saha was constituted for drawing up a plan for development of astronomical research and teaching in India. The recommendations included the establishment of an astronomical observatory with a large telescope, a solar tower telescope and a laboratory for solar and terrestrial studies. Saha was also the first to suggest that it was necessary to go out of the atmosphere to observe the stars better.