She was forgotten much before her death; but Bibha Chowdhuri on Tuesday found a place among the stars when a distant celestial body was named after the pioneering Indian woman physicist, who discovered a sub-atomic particle in the 1940s but never received any recognition.
Located at a distance of 340 light-years from the earth in the constellation of Sextans, the star HD-86081 has been named Bibha (Bengali pronunciation of the Sanskrit word Vibha, or a bright beam of light) while its exoplanet HD-86081b would be called Santamasa (Clouded in Sanskrit signifying the atmosphere of the plant).
The Indian names for the planet, one and half times the mass of the Jupiter, and its host star are part of an international campaign in which more than 110 exoplanets and their host stars were named by countries around the world. The International Astronomical Union that spearheaded the initiative provided each country with an exoplanet and its host stars for naming.
To find out appropriate names, Indian astronomers launched a national competition in July in which they received 1717 proposals out of which 10 were shortlisted for the voting. The two winning entries came from young students.
Ananyo Bhattacharya, a 20-year-old student from the Sardar Vallabhbhai National Institute of Technology, Surat picked up Bibha whereas Santamasa was the choice of by Vidyasagar Daud, 13, of Singhad Spring Dale Public School, Pune.
“The star's name refers to the pioneering Indian woman scientist Bibha Chowdhuri (1913-1991). She discovered a new subatomic particle, the pi-meson, from experiments in Darjeeling, with her mentor D M Bose (nephew of Sir J C Bose), and published her results in Nature, but did not get due recognition,” said Somak Raychaudhury, director of Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune and one of the members of the national committee that oversaw the competition.
According to her biography published three decades after her death (A Jewel Unearthed: Bibha Chowdhuri by Rajinder Singh and Suprakash C Roy) the duo published three papers on the mesons, but couldn't continue the further investigation on account of “non-availability of more sensitive emulsion plates during the war years.”
Seven years later English physicist C F Powell made the same discovery using the same technique and went on to win the Nobel Prize in 1950. Powell acknowledged Bose and Chowdhuri's pioneering contribution to his work.
The first woman researcher selected by Homi Bhabha to join the newly established Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Bombay, in 1949, Chowdhuri was also deeply involved with the Kolar gold mine experiments.
Ever since the discovery of the first exoplanet, designated 51 Pegasi b in 1995, more than 4,000 such exoplanets have been spotted by the scientists. Most of the newly named exoplanets whose names were announced in Paris are gas giants located far off from the Earth.