Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (21 February 1894 – 1 January 1955) was a well-known Indian scientist.
Bhatnagar was born in Shahpur, now in Pakistan. His Brahmo father Parmeshwari Sahai Bhatnagar died when he was only eight months old and he spent his childhood in the house of his maternal grandfather, an engineer, where he developed a liking for science and engineering. He used to enjoy building mechanical toys, electronic batteries, string telephones. From his maternal family he also inherited a gift of poetry, and his Urdu one-act play Karamati won the first prize in a competition.
A British company was drilling for oil near Rawalpindi, when it came across an unexpected problem. The combined with salty water to become a hard, rocky mass. Further drilling became extremely difficult and so work came to a standstill. The company faced a crisis. It began to look for someone who could solve the problem.
Finally it was referred to Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar. His contributions to emulsions and colloids were well known. A liquid is called emulsion when it is composed of two inseparable liquids. Milk is, for example, an emulsion because it is composed for water, other substances dissolved in water and cream fat. Colloid, on the other hand, is the gluelike state for any salt in a liquid. So the mud problem was the favourite research ground for Bhatnagar and he rose to the occasion.
After studying the problem at the Punjab University laboratory in Lahore (now in Pakistan), he advised the company to add an Indian gum to the mud drilled out. The gum made the mud less viscous and so did not allow it to harden. This quick and simple solution surprised the company officials. The company was saved from a huge loss. For this eleventh hour rescue the company rewarded Bhatnagar with Rs. 1,50,000 to continue his research on petroleum.
But Bhatnagar declined to take the money. Instead, he suggested that the company give the amount to Punjab University so that it could start research on petroleum. A new department was thus raised.
When scientists all over the land came to know of this, Bhatnagar was applauded. Among the many who sent him congratulatory messages was Meghnad Saha. His letter said: “India does not lack in men earning millions, but, if a few of those millionaires were guided by the fine example set by a comparatively poor teacher like yourself, I think her scientific and moral progress would have been rapid. Nobody but a true researcher can feel how much of our energies in this country are being wasted for lack of funds.” Bhatnagar turned out to be one of the builders of scientific institutions in India.
Bhatnagar did research to make wax odourless, refine kerosene to increase flame height and utilize petroleum waste in the oil industry. He gave a large part of the money he received from his parents to provide more research facilities in Punjab University. He believed that science and technology were not for making money or for personal gain.
From his maternal family Bhatnagar also inherited the gift of poetry. In his college days he once wrote an Urdu one-act play, Karamati, and won the first prize in a competition. He in fact, excelled in many spheres, literary, scientific, dramatic and social. During his stay abroad he did excellent research on emulsions and received his D.Sc. from London University in 1921. Apart from his valuable work on emulsions, colloids and industrial chemistry, his fundamental contributions are in the field of megneto-chemistry. He used magnetism as a tool to know more about some chemicals and chemical reactions. The famous Bhatnagar-Mathur interference balance, which he designed and fabricated in collaboration with R. N. Mathur, a physicist, is of immense use in such studies. A British firm manufactured this balance for worldwide sale.
When World War II broke out, the Government of India made Bhatnagar director of what later became the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research. The purpose of the council was to utilize scientific research done in laboratories, in industries to produce better goods. Here was an opportunity for Bhatnagar to realize his dreams. For the war effort Bhatnagar produced in his laboratory such articles as anti-gas cloth, unburstable countries and plastics from waste.
He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1943 for his scientific contributions. When the country gained independence, Bhatnagar began to lay the foundation for science and technology with the encouragement of Jawaharlal Nehru. Bhatnagar is responsible for installing oil refineries, plants to produce never metals such as titanium and zirconium and planning surveys for atomic minerals and petroleum deposits.
Before he died on January 1, 1955, Bhatnagar had established twelve national laboratories which provide facilities for young scientists, who have just left the universities, to do research without having to go abroad. In his honour the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research awards every year the “Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology,” a sun of ₹ 20,000, to scientists for outstanding contributions to science, including engineering and technology.