Bimla Buti on Plasma Physics and Reducing the Gender Difference

Bimla Buti’s mentors were her father, Bodh Raj, and Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. In India, when she was growing up, her father encouraged her to pursue her interest in mathematics and science, and in the United States, Chandrasekhar, her PhD advisor – who was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1983 – became a lifelong guide.

Bimla Buti
Bimla Buti in the early 1980s. Credit: Lent by Bimla Buti

After she got her Ph.D. in 1962 at the University of Chicago, Buti’s academic career took her back and forth between India and the United States. She also had a long association with the Abdus Salam International Center for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) in Trieste, Italy, including nearly two decades as director of plasma physics there.

After Buti retired from research, in 2003, she started the Buti Foundation. “I wanted to give something back to the community,” she says. The foundation promotes education, promotion of knowledge and computer skills and strives to help the public connect with science. “I spend more and more on reducing the gender gap in STEM,” she says. “That’s my top priority now.”

PT: Tell us about your early life.

BUT I: My family moved from Lahore, now in Pakistan, to Delhi in 1947 due to division. We had to move to India at that time. I was 13 or 14. The first thing my dad would do was get me and my two nieces admitted to some school. The one we could get into was the government-run school for children who had migrated from Pakistan. Unfortunately, that school had no science whatsoever. I started my science education when I went to University of Delhi.

PT: Why did you go into physics?

BUT I: Ever since I was a child, I was interested in mathematics. I was really good at math. That’s why I went into theoretical rather than experimental physics. After completing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Delhi, I received a scholarship from the Government of India to go abroad to get my PhD.

The Ministry of Education asked me to list three universities I would like to study at. I said University of Chicago, University of California at Berkeley and Columbia. One fine morning I received a letter stating that I had been admitted to the University of Chicago. The ministry arranged everything.

PT: Had you chosen your field of research yet?

BUT I: At that time, at the University of Delhi, particle physics was a favorite subject, so I went to Chicago to do research in particle physics. In the first two quarters, I took two courses in quantum mechanics with Chandrasekhar. I was so impressed with his simplicity, his way of teaching that I said to myself, I’m going to forget all about particle physics. I will work with him provided he accepts me.

After I finished all the courses for my qualifying exam, I went to Chandra – that’s what everyone called him – and said I would like to work with him. He explained that he was only on the University of Chicago campus on Thursdays and Fridays – he lived at the Yerkes Observatory, about 90 miles north of the main campus. If I worked with him, I would not have much time with him, he said. I accepted the challenge. He gave me references to two papers and asked me to return next week.

The next week he asked what I had found in the newspapers. I told him I had found some deficiencies in one of the papers and I explained them to him. “Okay,” he said, “then you go ahead and take care of the shortcomings.”

In those days, Chandra worked on magnetohydrodynamics, which is related to plasma physics. So that’s how I got into plasma physics. Correcting the shortcomings in that paper became part of my PhD thesis.

Bimla Buti talks to Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar
Bimla Buti (left) speaks with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (center) and others at the Space Applications Center in Ahmedabad, India, in 1982. Credit: Lent by Bimla Buti

PT: What was it like working with Chandrasekhar?

BUT I: I enjoyed it incredibly much. I got an absolutely amazing workout from him. After that training, I was not at all afraid to meet any audience when I had to give a lecture – I had gained so much confidence.

Many people, including his students, used to feel that Chandra was a very dry, not very social person. But my experience was completely different. I think when he got to know you, he was very social. And for some reason I was very close to him. Therefore, every time I visited the United States, I made a point of going to Chicago to see him.

On one of these visits he was working on his last book, on the Newtons Principle. He was very excited about it. He took me to the University of Chicago archives. In that library I saw handwritten notes by Newton. It was amazing. I will never forget it.

PT: What did you do after you finished your PhD?

BUT I: I returned to India – as required by my government scholarship – and joined the University of Delhi in a scheme for people returning from abroad after taking their PhD. This was not a faculty position. I started researching and teaching in the physics department.

After a few years, I decided to go back to the US to get my postdoc. I went to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.

So, back in India, I was working at Physical Research Laboratory [PRL], a national research institute in Ahmedabad. I came to PRL as an associate professor and later became a senior professor and then dean of science there. Over the years, I also spent time in the United States at other NASA centers – at the Ames Research Center in 1972-73 and at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1987-89 and again in 1997-2001.

Bimla Buti at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, India
Bimla Buti, shown here in the early 1990s, spent much of her career at the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad, India. Credit: Lent by Bimla Buti

PT: Which scientific contributions are you most proud of?

BUT I: There are quite a few things. As a plasma physicist, I have specialized in theoretical aspects of some intriguing fundamental problems encountered in the laboratory as well as in space plasmas. As I approach any problem, I take as my starting point the basic equations that govern the system studied and construct a general mathematical model. I then proceed to apply the model to interpret the observed phenomena in laboratory, space, and astrophysical plasmas. I have worked extensively in areas of non-linear, turbulent and chaotic processes in both relativistic and non-relativistic plasmas. An example is the fascinating phenomenon of solitons, which has application in hitherto unexplained observations of solar heating.

Another example is that I have shown the possibility that coherence exists in an otherwise chaotic system. There are various observations that confirm this. A beautiful example is the planet Jupiter, which at the same time exhibits turbulence and chaos and its cohesive large red spot, seen by NASA’s Voyager 1 in March 1979.

PT: How did you become involved in ICTP?

BUT I: The first time I went there was as a research fellow. Over a period of five years, you could visit ICTP three times in three months.

When ICTP founder Abdus Salam started the center in 1964, his goal was to bring experience and education to researchers from developing countries. He would get speakers from developed countries, but the participants would mostly be from developing countries.

When I went on my second visit, Salam said to me, “How about taking responsibility for holding the Plasma Physics School?” The colleges or schools are held in alternating years, and the director of a particular college must perform all the administrative work – selecting participants, inviting speakers, and so on. I did it from 1985. Seeing the young students, mostly from developing countries, interacting with senior people from all over the world and seeing the satisfaction on their faces, gave me a lot of satisfaction. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it.

After almost 18 years, in 2003, I told the ICTP director that I had done enough and that a younger person should take over.

PT: What have you been doing since then?

BUT I: In 2003, I started my fund. Through the foundation, I have established awards, managed by various institutes, for young researchers – and hardly any young researchers – and I have gold medals for female students at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, Madras and Indore. We arrange public lectures and hold a scientific competition for school children. I am also very proud of three awards that my foundation has launched for visually challenged college students at the University of Delhi.

The foundation has also started centers for science and society. The aim is to increase the interaction between natural and social scientists and between scientists and non-scientists. I try to use the foundation and its four centers [in Ahmedabad, Bareilly, Delhi, and Indore] to reduce gender bias in STEM. I talk to administrators and politicians and tell them we need to do things to encourage female scientists.

People say, “You’re a scientist – why did you decide to practice philanthropy?” Maybe it was my dad’s influence. Professionally, he was a lawyer, but he was also a social worker and freedom fighter – he worked tirelessly for India to be liberated from British rule. So I must have gotten the feeling from him that I should give back to the community. So far, the funds for the fund have been my personal funds.

Although much of my time is devoted to the activities of my foundation, I still give scientific lectures and lectures on women in science. And I attend conferences. I stopped doing research a few years ago. But I go to scientific discussions. I keep track of what’s going on.

PT: In your generation, few women became physicists. Why did you keep at it?

BUT I: My mother died when I was very young and I was raised by my father. He was interested in mathematics. And he wanted all his children to go to a higher education. My father was very proud that I received the government scholarship to study in the United States.

He probably wanted me to get married. But I said to him, “Look, you know my nature; no matter what responsibility I take, I take it very seriously. If I get married, I will devote time to the family, so of course I will not be able to devote myself 100% to my profession and I do not want that. ” He accepted my decision, I was very fortunate to have such an understanding and considerate father.

PT: What are your thoughts on the situation today in India for women in science?

BUT I: When it comes to science education for women, women are for some reason afraid to go into physics and math. But I would like to emphasize that this is not only a problem in India, it is a universal problem. In fact, when I was in Chicago, in my year, only three female students came to the physics department, and we were all foreigners.

Since then, the difference has dropped quite rapidly in the US and Europe. In India, it has not fallen that fast, but we are working very hard in that direction. Now at some universities, some physics departments have 50% female students, but when it comes to pursuing a scientific career, the number drops markedly.

We need to work hard to create some change in society, namely to convince people that family responsibilities should be shared by men and women. And in my opinion, women themselves need to take a strong initiative to convince their families and themselves that they can and should be able to pursue a career in science.

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