M G K Menon: A rare Statesman of Science

Somak Raychaudhury*

doi:10.1038/nindia.2016.153 Published online 23 November 2016

M G K Menon (1928-2016)


There are very few examples when one of the top scientists of a country makes the transition to public office, and champions the cause of scientific research in the corridors of power. Mambilakalathil Govind Kumar (Goku) Menon, who passed away on 22 November 2016 at the age of 88, was one such rare example — a Statesman of Science in the true sense.

“…If we can call Homi Jahangir Bhabha the architect of modern scientific and technological India, then Menon can be considered as the builder who grasped the significance of the plans, assiduously worked on them and oversaw the construction of the first important stages of the superstructure”, wrote Ramanath Cowsik in a tribute to him a few years ago.

M G K Menon remembered his early scientific inspiration, on an occasion when his father had invited the Nobel Laureate C V Raman to dinner. “For a person in the mid-teens, it was quite an experience to meet someone like him. He was exuberant and completely focused. He thumped the table and said, the greatest thing for me to do in life would be to do science.” Soon after, as a Masters student with photography as a hobby, Menon began developing photographic emulsions that were sensitive in the ultraviolet, which helped him embark upon a research career at the University of Bristol, UK, under the guidance of another Nobel Laureate, Cecil Frank Powell. 

At Bristol, Menon worked with Powell on observing the tracks of charged cosmic-ray pions and their decay into muons, using stacks of plates, and later, pellicles, with their unique “nuclear” photographic emulsion, flown on hydrogen-filled plastic balloons up to heights of 30 km, and made some fundamental discoveries in the nature of these particles. They showed, for instance, that slow K–mesons are much less abundant that K+ mesons, and that the K+ meson can decay into three pions as well as two pions, giving rise to the so-called tau-theta puzzle. This would be resolved almost a decade later by Lee and Yang with their Nobel-winning theory of parity violation.

Menon joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai in 1955 at the invitation of Homi Bhabha, where he went on to establish one of the world’s leading groups on the study of cosmic rays near the geomagnetic equator from high-altitude balloon flights. Later, these stratospheric balloons would carry infrared, X-ray and gamma-ray payloads, thus paving the way, decades later, for Indian scientists building the space-borne AstroSat, which was launched last year. His cosmic ray research also spawned gamma-ray facilities at Udhagamandalam and Pachmarhi, and later at Mount Abu and the High Altitude Gamma Ray Telescope (HAGAR) in Ladakh.

Menon became the director of TIFR at the age of 37, when his mentor Homi Bhabha died in an air crash in 1966. During the next two decades, he held almost all the important positions of public office related to science and technology in India. At one point, in addition to being Director of TIFR, he was Secretary of the Department of Electronics, with additional charge of Chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation and the Physical Research Laboratory.

He went on to become Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, the Director-General of the CSIR, Chairman, Science Advisory Committee to the Cabinet, Member, Planning Commission, Minister of State for Science and Technology, and a member of the Rajya Sabha. In addition to his own field of the study of elementary particles, Menon, notably as a member of the Planning Commission and Secretary to the DST, championed the cause of some of the other sciences in India. 

India's pioneering radio astronomer Govind Swarup remembers how Menon's initiative helped him, and three other young peers, establish the steerable Ooty radio-telescope in the 1960s, from an embryonic idea. Menon also helped the group blossom into building the largest sub-GHz array in the world, the Giant Metrewave Radio telescope, near Pune two decades later. 

Menon was also instrumental in empowering Vainu Bappu, fresh from Harvard, establish the largest optical telescope at Kavalur and its parent institution, the IIA in Bengaluru, just as he had helped V Radhakrishnan establish his radioastronomy activities at the Raman Research Institute. Likewise, the India's molecular biology guru, the late Obaid Siddiqui, has written about how Menon inspired his research  to grow out of TIFR into the fledgling National Centre of Biological Sciences, also in Bengaluru. 

M G K Menon was awarded a Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1970 “…for his contributions to nuclear emulsion techniques, elucidation of the properties of strange particles, and cosmic ray studies near the geomagnetic equator.” He received a Padma Vibhushan in 1985, was elected the President of all three Academies of Science in India, and was one of the founders of the Third World Academy of Sciences. 

Befittingly, the asteroid 7564 has been named Gokumenon in his honour.

* The author is the Director of Inter-University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics, Pune, India.