Homi Jehangir Bhabha, the scientist largely responsible for India’s atom bomb, was born in Bombay on October 30, 1909. He came from a Parsi family closely associated with the Tatas, one of the richest families in India. His father was a British-educated lawyer for the Tatas and his paternal aunt had married Sir Dorab Tata, the oldest son of the founder of the Tata industrial empire, Jamsetji N. Tata.
Bhabha grew up in an atmosphere of high culture and great privilege. In his aunt’s house could be found people like Nehru and Gandhi. He was educated in the best of the most expensive schools in Bombay. He showed great natural abilities in mathematics and he persuaded his uncle to finance studies in Cambridge. He was supposed to become an engineer, but at Cambridge he attended the lectures of Paul Dirac, one of the founders of the quantum theory, and decided to take his degree in physics. He did his Ph.D. with Ralph Fowler, who had been Dirac’s mentor. As a postdoctoral scholar he studied with the best scientists in Europe. During this time he did a calculation of the collisions of electrons with positrons—a process that bears his name and can be found in any textbook. When he was on vacation in India in 1939 the war broke out and Bhabha decided that he could not go back to England. This was a momentous choice, which led eventually to the creation of the Indian atomic bomb.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the politician who organized Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, was born on January 5, 1928, in Larkana, then part of British India but now in Pakistan. His father, Sir Shah Nawaz Bhutto, was a landowner in the Sindh. While not in the same financial league as the Tatas they were still very well-off. The family was Muslim and his father was an important political leader. Like Bhabha, Bhutto received his primary education in private schools in Bombay. Also like Bhabha, he left the Indian subcontinent to study abroad. He spent two years at the University of Southern California before transferring to Berkeley. He then went to Oxford to study law. He practiced law in Pakistan briefly before entering government. In 1957 he became the youngest member of the Pakistani delegation to the United Nations.
Six years later he became the foreign minister and angered the Americans by developing a close relationship with China. One of his friends was a nuclear engineer named Munir Ahmad Khan, who had worked extensively in the United States but took a position as a technical associate with the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna. This gave Khan access to classified reports and in 1965 he informed Bhutto that India was starting a serious program to build an atomic bomb. Bhutto reacted by saying, “Pakistan will…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.