In July 2022, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest scientific society, announced an annual award for science breakthroughs. The prize has been instated based on what the AAAS describes as the “largest transformational gift” in its history. The gift came from Bengal-born Indian-American physicist Mani L. Bhaumik, a renowned scientist known for his work in lasers. He pledged $11.4 million to the society and the contribution will support a $250,000 annual cash prize, which will be called the Mani L. Bhaumik Breakthrough fo the Year Award and given to a maximum of three scientists annually.
It isn’t his first contribution to the society. In 2019, he endowed a prize to support science communication and recognize excellent science communicators. “Many people think science is too esoteric. And even if they’re interested in the results, they might not understand the processes unless they are explained well. But scientific knowledge is not just for scientists. It should be useful to everybody,” he told Science.org in 2019.
Known as a pioneer of laser technology, Bhaumik’s work has contributed to what the world now knows as Lasik eye surgery, which revolutionised vision correction for millions of people. In 1973, in his address to the Optical Society of America, in Denver, Colorado, he showed evidence to back the practical applications of excimer laser technology. The paper changed ophtalmology forever.
Many people think science is too esoteric. And even if they’re interested in the results, they might not understand the processes unless they are explained well. But scientific knowledge is not just for scientists. It should be useful to everybody,
Bhaumik was born in Tamluk, a small village in West Bengal. His father, Binodhar Bhaumik was a freedom fighter and as a teenager, Mani spent time with Mahatma Gandhi in his Mahisdal camp. He received his M.Sc. from the University of Calcutta and showed such immense talent that he received the attention of Satyendra Nath Bose (the ‘boson’ and the Bose-Einstein condensate). Bhaumik became the first student to receive a doctorate from IIT Kharagpur, for his researh in quantum physics.
“Satyendra Nath Bose was my mentor and teacher. He got me interested in theoretical physics.”
In 1959, Bhaumik received a Sloan Foundation Fellowship and moved to the United States to do his doctorate at the University of California, Los Angeles. After that, he joined the Quantum Electronics Divions at Xerox Electro-Optical Systems, kickstarting his career as a laser scientist, the field in which he would establish himself as a pioneer.
His story, which he also outlines in his book Code Name God, began as one of great poverty. “I didn’t have any shoes until I was 16,” he said. “The nearest high school was about four miles from my village. So I walked there everyday.” It was there that he fell in love with science, inspired by his teachers. In 2000, when he returned to India for a visit, he read in a newspaper article that many top performing high school graduates lacked the resources to fulfill their dreams. He started the Bhaumik Educational Foundation, that sponsors college education for students in rural West Bengal.
I didn’t have any shoes until I was 16. The nearest high school was about four miles form my village. So I walked there everyday.
In his later years, Bhaumik turned his attention to more spiritual thesis and in 2005, published Code Name God. He writes that the discoveries of modern physics can be reconciled with the truths propagated by world religions. Here, he works to integrate two fields that have historically been viewed in terms of total polarity: the bridging of science and spirituality. He writes also about his time in Mahatma Gandhi’s camp, detailing his journey from a boy raised in poverty to one of the world’s wealthiest scientists.