There are many laurels that MGK Menon wore over his lifetime—a particle physicist of considerable acclaim, he became the director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) at just 35 years of age, when his mentor and TIFR founder-director, Homi J Bhaba, passed away in 1966. Menon also stepped in as the chairman of the Indian Space Research Organisation (Isro) for a brief period of nine months, after the passing of the first chairman, Vikram Sarabhai. Both roles may have seemed to have been thrust upon him given the circumstances, but at both TIFR and during the short stint at Isro, the ace scientist demonstrated an unsurpassed capacity for institution building. In the academia, he was already a star before he became the able administrator. Collaborating with Nobel laureate Cecil Powell at the University of Bristol, he studied subatomic particle decay—he developed a method to measure cosmic rays at high altitudes and study decay of high-enery particles like K-mesons. His research would later prove crucial to the Nobel-winning discovery of “parity non-conservation”.
Having accomplished all this, Menon donned the role of the technocrat policy-maker, first becoming the director-general of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and then becoming the scientific advisor to the government, and finally, serving as the Union minister for science, technology and education (1989-90) in the VP Singh government. He was also the key force behind the Technology Policy Statement 1983, making India one of the first developing nations to have such a vision document. A large part of the strides the country has taken in technology ever since can be attributed to Menon’s foresight. With his passing, on Tuesday, the country is diminished for policymakers who give economic progress the edge of technology.