Meet Indian genius who made one of the most important scientific discoveries but never won Nobel Prize

Alongside Mahatma Gandhi, the omission of this astrophysicist remains one most curious cases of Indians who were overlooked for the Nobel Prize.

Just like one of its most famous errors, one that the Nobel Committee admitted in 2001, of not awarding one to Mahatma Gandhi, a question mark will always remain on the decision to overlook legendary Indian astrophysicist Meghad Saha. The scientist who was forced to leave school and faced discrimination in college, went on to make one of the most important discoveries in astronomy in recent times. However, he arguably did not received his due despite the stellar contribution. He never won a Nobel, despite being nominated several times.

The 1893 born astrophysicist grew up in a Bengali family in a village in Dhaka during the pre-Independence era. He came from a poor background and was the son of a grocer. Saha faced caste discrimination as a young college student. He was also forced to leave his school for being part of the Swadeshi movement. Despite such hurdles, he went on to become a professor at the Allahabad University and University of Calcutta.

Saha is behind the Saha ionizing equation, one of the most important discoveries in the last century. He published his research in 1920 which was further advanced by American scientist Irving Langmuir. The discovery that greatly helped other scientists studying stars has been called among the most important since the telescope which Galileo created in 1608. Saha earned Nobel nominations in 1930, 1939, 1940, 1951 and 1955 but missed each time. He passed away in 1956 without his name on the biggest prize.

While the equation was improved a few years later, the important discovery may have suffered from misunderstanding about its scope of significance across fields. This may have been behind Saha being overlooked. Furthermore, some confusion regarding the exact creator of the underlying theory of the equation that may have led to the omission.

A 1917 paper of Saha that should have been published in the Astrophysical Journal was not as the scientist was unable to afford the cost of printing, according to a report from The Wire. It was eventually published in a paper that was no match for the Astrophysical Journal in terms of readers.

“… I might claim to be the originator of the Theory of Selective Radiation Pressure, though on account of discouraging circumstances, I did not pursue the idea to develop it. E.A. Milne apparently read a note of mine in Nature 107, 489 (1921) because in his first paper on the subject ‘Astrophysical Determination of Average of an Excited Calcium Atom’, in Month. Not. R. Ast. Soc., Vol.84, he mentioned my contribution in a footnote, though nobody appears to have noticed. His exact words are: ‘These paragraphs develop ideas originally put forward by Saha’,” Saha was quoted to have said about the issue.


Photo Credit: Unscientific Storytelling

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