|Devendra Lal at La Jolla (source)|
Initially, the cosmic radiation research group was headed by H. J. Taylor, a physicist at Wilson College whose primary research area was in the detection of cosmic rays. In 1949, as it happened, Bernard Peters, an eminent physicist, was visiting TIFR on invitation from Homi Bhabha (another eminent physicist in his own right). Peters, a professor at the University of Rochester had met Bhabha in New York. They were both interested in understanding the particles that make-up incoming cosmic radiation. Peters knew of the hypothesis that low-latitude equatorial locations had a potential bias in the incoming cosmic particle composition and readily took up Bhabha's invitation to TIFR, where they were conducting detection experiments.
Curiously enough, Peters, who was born as Bernhard Pietrkowski of Jewish heritage, was held at a concentration camp shortly after he joined the Technical University in Munich as a student. After three months in the camp at Dachau, somehow, he escaped by bicycling through the Alps! Ultimately, he made his way to the US and worked odd jobs (including a stint at an import firm in New York and as a stevedore in San Francisco) until he met Robert Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer convinced Peters to do his doctoral studies with him on theoretical physics (in a bizarre twist, in his later years, Oppenheimer would testify that Peters was a member of the Communist Party in Cold War America). After completing his PhD, Peters switched to a more experimental outlook and landed a faculty job at the University of Rochester, where he would run into Bhabha. Peters was enthralled enough by Bombay and TIFR, and chose to stay there from 1951-1958. Thus, Peters became Lal's supervisors and the father of the atomic bomb became Lal's 'academic grandfather'.
|Lal (background) with erstwhile defense minister, Shivraj Patil|
The nature of science is such that from time to time, separate groups arrive at the same result or discovery despite being geographically isolated. This was to be the case for the discovery of 10Be in marine sediments. In 1956, another group at Princeton headed by James R. Arnold (another crucial Manhattan Project scientist) published their results in Science  on 10Be from a core (coincidentally enough) from the Eastern Pacific! While visiting the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in '57, Roger Revelle, offered Arnold a faculty position in chemistry to help build the department (which he took because Harold Urey was moving there too!) Meanwhile, Lal had just finished his PhD while Peters' group was exchanging mails with Arnold's group and was offered a chance to work at Scripps (which he accepted because of Arnold). This was Lal's first time at Scripps and he would collaborate with Arnold well into the future to produce many seminal papers on meteorites and planetary chemistry (see ,  and ). Arnold made six more journeys around the sun than Lal before passing away earlier this year.
|PRL Silver Jubilee in 1974: Lal welcomes Indira Gandhi|
In 1989, Lal permanently moved to Scripps as full-time faculty and this is where he would stay until he passed. Lal won numerous awards and accolades throughout his career - too many for me to detail. His ideas were far-reaching and he had many collaborators. Gerry Wasserburg, in his memoirs entitled Isotopic Adventures , wrote:
Chasing some particular idea and some observations of nature make up the real present and govern my immediate future. In the chase, I met Devendra and Aruna Lal. He was fascinated with Indian puzzles and natural puzzles, particularly those cosmic-ray induced. Our mutual interest in natural puzzles has been a continuous source of entertainment and mutual support.
Web of Science pegs Devendra Lal's h-index at 41 (i.e. he has written at least 41 articles that have been cited 41 times). His first peer-reviewed article On the production of radioisotopes in the atmosphere by cosmic radiation and their application to meteorology  was published in July 1958 in the Journal of Atmospheric and Terrestrial Physics and has been cited 101 times. His last article was in Earth and Planetary Science Letters (EPSL) published in August 2010, Nuclear, chemical and biological characterization of formation histories of ironstones from several sites in Southern California: Dominant role of bacterial activity  indicating the diverse nature of problems that Lal sought to tackle. His most cited article (over 1000 citations) was also published in EPSL - Cosmic ray labeling of erosion surfaces: in situ nuclide production rates and erosion models  in 1991. All in all, Devendra Lal's academic legacy will live far into the future. He was a tremendously gifted geophysicist and contributed greatly to the breadth of Indian science. It was unfortunate that I never had the opportunity to meet the man but I have certainly met him vicariously through the scientists and friends that I have collaborated/worked with. He will be deeply missed by the Indian scientific community (and otherwise). On that note, here is what my friend, Arvind Singh had to say:
I don’t know how to describe him. He was such a diverse personality. He would come to PRL and talk to almost everyone, not only students but everyone who worked in the canteen as well! I have not found a single person in PRL who does not respect him. When I travel abroad, people ask me, "Where did you work in India?" I would say PRL, Ahmedabad, which they would not know. But when I told them our lab was established by Prof. Devendra Lal, they immediately knew. So, in a way he was bigger than the institute.