Goku Menon’s most significant contribution to Indian science lies with the original and exciting experiments at Kolar Gold Field (KGF) Underground Laboratories. KGF had been mined since second century BC, for gold. This gold contributed in no small way to the riches of the Ganga, the Chola and Hoysala dynasties. Homi Bhabha heard about the legend of KGF while at the Institute of Science (1939 – 45).
It was not till 1948 that Bhabha’s first handpicked graduate student B.V. Sreekantan went down to the Champion Reef mine, 3200 metres below sea level at KGF, one of the deepest mines in the world. Goku Menon, egged by Bhabha realised the great potential of the deep underground facilities at KGF for carrying out experiments in frontline particle physics experiments using the cosmic rays, perennially bombarding the earth. The greatest success of KGF was of course the first detection of the elusive neutrinos showering from outer space, and predicted by that maverick, Pauli, to explain radioactivity.
But, KGF, incredibly enough, detected atmospheric neutrinos, a phenomenon completely new to the world at that time. Goku Menon set up an international collaboration with Saburo Miyake and his collegues from Osaka City University, Japan, and Arnold Wolfendale from Durham University, UK. With Menon’s leadership, KGF experiments made quite a splash in the field of neutrinos physics. Meanwhile, one of the greatest of the greats, Abdus Salam, a Nobel Laureate and his collaborators wanted to propose Grand Unified theories which unite all the four fundamental forces of nature ~ gravity, weak interaction of radioactivity, strong interaction of nuclear force and electromagnetic force of light.
This theory predicts that the most stable elementary particle, proton also decays, with a life time of existence before decay of about 1030 years, (namely 10 and then thirty zeroes in years). Goku Menon was a good friend of Abdus Salam. He and his collaborators took up the daunting challenge of measuring the lifetime of a proton, deep down in the mines of KGF. It was a gigantic effort. They set up sophisticated proportional counters, 3600 of them at a depth 2000 metres underground.
It must have been a great adventure, almost like climbing the Mount Everest, except in the underground, going down, not up. But protons will not decay. The cruel joke that went around is all the gold of KGF has decayed but not the proton. They could only put some limits, that is, the life time of a proton is longer than (say) 1030 years. By then, Professor MGK Menon devoted considerable time in science administration and science policy and held a large number of positions in the Government, except that of Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission and UGC Chairman. I met him and his wife, Indumati, in the afternoon of his life.
He was charming as ever and an incredible store house of stories and anecdotes of the greats, especially Indira Gandhi. Slowly but surely one noticed that Alzheimer’s disease had afflicted him. Such an energetic man started sinking, gripped as he was by this degenerating neural disease. A man, who had done so much for Indian Science and Technology, unnoticed by most, quietly slipped away, as silently as possible. He was, right up to the last, at peace with himself, simple, unassuming but extremely confident.
The poet’s memory survives, the novelists strike an emotional chord, a painter reminds one of what he/she could have been, but scientists throughout man’s history always have remained somewhat detached, unreal in a cloud of uncertain longing. M.G.K. Menon belonged to that last group ~ criticise him if you must but please don’t forget him, don’t please ignore his dedication and devotion to his country. Goku Menon was the prince of Science in India; he rose to be the Tzar of Science in India; and died like a sage of India. Polite but firm, creative both in Science and administration, his memory is like the pole star guiding us and navigating us through rough weather.
Attracted by Bhabha’s charisma, Badaraval Venkatasubba Sreekantan joined TIFR in 1948 and by 1951, he was a pioneer in the cosmic ray experiments carried out in the Champion Reef Gold Mine at the Kolar Gold Field (KGF), thus starting an illustrious scientific carreer that continued for almost 44 years. They quickly realised the great advantage of the mine field shielding the cosmic ray particles, especially muons. By 1965 they recorded the first atmosphericneutrino events, about the same time that Fred Reino and his team discovered similar phenomena in South Africa’s mine.
Simultaneously, he started a cosmic ray laboratory at Ooty in Tamil Nadu to study cosmic ray induced events at high attitude. After taking over the position of Director, TIFR in 1975. Sreekantan was responsible for expanding and extending its activities all across India. I came to know him quite closely around 1988 when we organised the conference on Quark Plasma at TIFR. He was a kind and affectionate men, and always very helpful. The very first meeting with him was some time ago, when the great Abdus Salam came to TIFR and Sreekantan was the Director. Salam was a guest of the Indian Physics Association (IPA) and I happened to be its General Secretary.
What struck me about Sreekantan was his modesty, and his temperament, he never raised his voice. He was so devoted to TIFR that before the office opened he used to go around the beautiful gardens, talk to the gardeners, even the dedicated worker inside the main lift of the institute, whose job was to polish the brass fittings inside the lift in the morning, in the afternoon, and late in the evening. Later in life, he went back to Bengaluru as a Professor of the newly established National Institute of Advanced Studies. His field of research changed somewhat to philosophy of science and consciousness.
I used to visit him at his splendid Bangalore ancestral house and I still cherish the hours of absorbing conversation with him. Goku Menon was known to his friends as “Magic Menon” and Sreekantan was known to a very small group as “Cosmic Sreekantan”. With his passing, the glorious chapter of cosmic ray research in India ended and I lost a close friend, philosopher and guide.
The three persons whom I have mentioned were passionate about science, extremely dedicated and motivated in building up a remarkable foundation of science in independent India. It is next to impossible to replace them. Such personalities are rare particularly in today’s India, where by far and large, self-interest dominates. The country is of little or not concern.
(The writer is former Homi Bhabha Professor, Department of Atomic Energy, former Director VECC and SINP)