Dr. Raja Ramanna was born into a well-to-do Hindu family in Bangalore. He was educated at the city`s Bishop Cotton boys` school and graduated in science from Madras Christian College. He completed his PhD in physics at King`s College London, and on his return home in 1949 was handpicked to join the Indian nuclear science programme, which was then taking shape under the leadership of Dr Homi Bhadha.
Ramanna rose to become head of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (Barc) in Mumbai (formerly Bombay), a post he held for two periods (1972-78 and 1981-83). He was also chairman of the India atomic energy commission, and secretary of the department of atomic energy from 1983 to 1987.
The high point of his career came when India carried out its first nuclear test at Pokhran, in the western Rajasthan desert, in May 1974, at a time when the Congress party was in power and Indira Gandhi was prime minister. The coded message Ramanna sent to the premier to tell her of the successful test was "The Buddha is smiling."
Ramanna had a less successful time in the late 1970s after the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) took power in Delhi. For years before he became prime minister, in March 1977, the BJP`s Morarji Desai had been against pursuing the nuclear option, and he continued to oppose nuclear testing, peaceful or otherwise, while in office.
A second high point in Ramanna`s career - and dramatic in a quite different way - came in 1978, when Saddam Hussein approached Ramanna for help to build an Iraqi nuclear bomb. The offer came while Ramanna was in Baghdad for a week as Saddam`s personal guest. He was given a tour of the capital and Iraq`s main nuclear facility at Tuwaitha. At the end of the trip, Saddam invited the scientist to his office and told him: "You have done enough for your country; don`t go back. Stay here and take over our nuclear programme. I will pay you whatever you want."
Ramanna was shocked and scared by the Iraqi proposal. He reportedly could not sleep that night, worried that he might never see his homeland again. He took the next flight out, never to return to Iraq.
A multi-faceted personality, Ramanna was a gifted musician, and could play the piano as dextrously as he could speak about atomic energy. Music was close to his heart, and one of the two books he wrote was The Structure Of Music In Raga And Western Systems (1993). The other was his autobiography, entitled Years Of Pilgrimage (1991).
Ramanna`s research interests included nuclear physics, European music and Buddhist philosophy. He remained director emeritus of the Bangalore-based National Institute of Advanced Studies until his last days.
He passed away on October 1st 2004, aged seventy eight.