Saturday, June 15, 2002

A tribute to ‘Indian Einstein’
Tejendra Khanna

DR P. S. GILL, a cosmic ray physicist, who was born in a Punjab village and did his Bachelors, Masters, and Ph.D from the USA, died on March 23 last at his home in Atlanta. He was born on October 28, 1911.

He received a BA and an MA in Science and Mathematics from the University of Southern California in 1935. He then went to the University of Chicago to work under Dr Arthur H. Compton, a Nobel Laureate in Physics. Later he received his Ph.D in cosmic ray physics. His doctoral dissertation was entitled ‘Further studies in cosmic rays on the Pacific Ocean’. The data was collected with the help of an ionisation chamber placed on board SS Aorangi. The New York Times reported on his work and that of his associate, Marcel Schein, in its issue of June 30, 1939, under the heading "Cosmic ‘Bullets’ make dust of Atom".

He did further research by trekking in the Himalayas. He continued his research at higher altitudes by sending his apparatus into space with the help of hydrogen balloons and by carrying it in planes, both British and American, especially equipped for this purpose.


He also conducted research at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1948. He worked closely with Robert Oppenheimer (Director, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) and E. Fermi (winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1938) on the atomic bomb. Prof J.R. Oppenheimer asked him to present a paper at the California Institute of Technology at a symposium organised to celebrate the 80th birthday of Prof R.A. Millikan (winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1928).

At the National Bureau of Standard, Washington D.C., where he was a consultant in nuclear physics, he set up a Neutron Standardization Laboratory. He worked with Prof V.F. Hess, the discoverer of cosmic rays. His work took him to Cambridge, Oxford, London and Manchester. Prof P.M.S. Blackett (who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1948) asked him to lecture on his work. In a letter from the District Jail, Dehra Dun, in 1945, Nehru wrote to Dr Gill, "So carry on your work not only for your own sake, but for the sake of India."

On being urged by Nehru to help promote science in the newly independent India, Prof Gill returned to his country. Nehru introduced him to Gandhi. He was asked by Dr Zakir Hussain, President of India (at that time the Vice-Chancellor) to join Aligarh Muslim University as a professor of physics and the Dean of the Faculty of Science.

At the university, he was instrumental in building an internationally renowned Department of Physics. He also established a high-altitude research facility in Gulmarg, Kashmir, that was inaugurated by Prof Compton. Prof Herzberg, a Nobel Laureate at Yerkes Observatory, on visiting Gulmarg remarked, "The laboratory forms an important link for the International Geophysical Year. The location is admirably suited for cosmic rays and spectroscopy."

While working on the High Adventure series for TV, Lowell Thomas, who was accompanied by Norman Rockwell, said, "The doctor picked one of the most spectacular sites in the whole world for his research laboratory. He looks right down on the glorious Vale of Kashmir, of which one of the great Mogul Emperors said ‘If there be a paradise on earth, it is this, it is this.’"

Dr Gill’s wife died in 1978. In 1989, he moved back to the USA to be near his daughters and grandchildren. In Atlanta, he became an adjunct professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology. His work always put him amidst luminaries from all walks of life. On learning that he had passed away, Ambassador Andrew Young said, "I felt enriched in his presence. He was an Indian Einstein. He knew something I did not understand. He was easy to talk to, wise, loving, and it was a blessing to be in his presence." On getting the news of his death, his student, Prof S.P. Puri of Chandigarh who had gone to visit him in Atlanta, and had called his visit a pilgrimage, said, "It is an end of an era in science in India." Prof Hans, another student said, "The fountainhead and pioneer of physics in India has gone. Everybody is missing him. An era is over".

He lived with his younger daughter Dr Surishtha G. Sehgal, faculty and director of the Carter Award Program at Georgia State University, and his son-in-law, R.K. Sehgal, Commissioner Industry Trade and Tourism for the state of Goa.

He wrote many papers and books. His book, Up Against Odds: An autobiography of an Indian Scientist is available through Barnes and Noble.