Throughout his active life as a scientist, administrator and populariser of science, Prof. Yash Pal, who died Monday night at 90 years of age, was much decorated and felicitated, the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan being among the many honours bestowed on him. But Yash was a thorough academician by nature. Though he successfully carried out several administrative assignments at high levels, he never turned into a politician like others have. He remained an academician at heart and that always guided his actions.
Yash was open-minded and very good at original thinking, which is a must for a scientist. He used to always be game for a new experiment and insisted on the least hindrance from the bureaucracy. Homi Bhabha, whom he always referred to as his guru, had a great influence on his entire life. It was that influence that took Yash to ISRO at Ahmedabad.
The nascent space programme was the first of his administrative assignments. He learnt a lot from that experience and used that learning skillfully while carrying out his responsibilities at the Department of Science and Technology and at the University Grants Commission later.
Being liberal and observant, Yash voiced his concerns on several issues. One such issue was bulky schoolbags, would you believe it. Though the issue was not directly related to his work, he earnestly felt that something ought to be done about it and he took it upon himself search for a scientific reason why children should not carry heavy bags.
The Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) was his brainchild in a sense. A lot of the effort behind its creation was his. He always strived to find the right people for right job. This tendency to give importance to human resources is a rare quality.
He also had an innate urge to communicate science to students and to commoners. That led to his signature TV programme called Turning Point, anchored by Girish Karnad, in the 1980s. It was an instant success. Inspired by the success of his programme, I too participated in the programme Surabhi, which became very popular.
When Yash Pal decided to set up IUCAA in Pune, he asked some scientists, including me, for advice on the project report for it. We worked hard and produced a comprehensive report for UGC's approval. I was satisfied we had done a good job. However, that was not the end of the story.
One day I was having lunch at home when the phone rang. My wife took the call and signalled it was for me. Yash was on the line. He said: “I have your project report in front of me. It is a good report but I will accept and approve it on one condition.”
"What’s that?" I asked.
"You have to take up the responsibility as founder director," he said.
I was momentarily at a loss. I had a comfortable position at TIFR. Should I give it up and take up a job that was not well-defined with no guarantee of how it would turn out? I was still thinking when Yash added another caveat: "You must not leave on lien from TIFR. You must resign your present job and come."
In short, there was no going back. It was typical of Yash, always a tough taskmaster! I held the receiver and spoke to my wife. She was all for it. I spoke back to Yash at the other end. "I take up your challenge." I said.
Yash laughed and said: "I was confident that you would."
I said, "I’m taking it for granted that I will have your full support."
I need never have worried. It was always like that with Yash Pal.
Rest in peace, great friend.
The author is Emeritus Professor, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune