Behind a Campus Gift for Physics: An Iconoclast and Father of Lasik Surgery

Physicist Mani Bhaumik has spent a lifetime breaking through barriers, rising from poverty and hunger as a boy in India to international respect as a scientist, writer, children's television show creator and a philanthropist. Recently, he gave an $11 million gift to UCLA aimed at advancing knowledge of the basic laws of nature by establishing a world-leading center for theoretical physics.

Bhaumik is known for pursuing the laser technology in the 1970s that led to Lasik surgery, and is also the best-selling author of Code Name God. Bhaumik said of his gift to UCLA: “It’s very difficult to raise funds for this area, because people don’t understand what theoretical physicists do." And what is it that, exactly? Bhaumik sees these scientists as cosmic sleuths, uncovering underlying explanations about the physical world using mathematical models and powerful computers.

The Bhaumik Institute at UCLA will welcome scholars and hold seminars and conferences for academics. Faculty, postdoctoral researchers and graduate students will address "unanswered questions in all areas of theoretical physics." The institute will also engage in public outreach to teach the community about scientific advances made by UCLA physicists. The donation is the largest ever made to UCLA’s physics and astronomy department.

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Bhaumik's philanthropy takes place in Southern California and in India. Among other things, he's created an annual International Award through the UCLA Neuropsychiatry Institute that spotlights scientific evidence demonstrating the mind's effect on healing. He's also been involved with the Los Angeles Bombay Sister City Association, the Los Angeles St. Petersburg Sister City Association, and the Calcutta Sister City Association. He created the Bhaumik Educational Foundation, based in Kolkata, India, that provides full scholarships to "needy but brilliant" students studying science and technology. 

With previous donations to UCLA, he established the Mani L. Bhaumik Presidential Chair in Theoretical Physics and supported the work of a research group led by physics professor Zvi Bern.

Bhaumik has a remarkable life story. He was born in a village in West Bengal, India, and as a child, slept on rags in a mud hut he shared with his parents and six siblings. He walked four miles to school in bare feet because he didn't own a pair of shoes. “My family didn’t always know where our next meal would come from,” yet he decided to pursue a good education. He overcame his family's poverty using intellect and a fierce sense of intellectual curiosity, an essential quality in a scientists. He earned a master's degree at the University of Calcutta and became the first doctoral graduate from the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur.

Bhaumik arrived at UCLA in 1959 on a postdoctoral fellowship in physics, his airfare paid by people in his village. He began his career in applied physics two years later at Xerox Electro-Optical Systems as a laser scientist. He rose to director of the laser technology laboratory at Northrop’s corporate research laboratory, where, in the early 1970s, his lab harnessed a laser technology that is used for vision-correction surgery, commonly known as Lasik. The technology is also used for high-precision machining. 

Bhaumik is a fellow of the American Physical Society and of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and, in 2011, the Indian government awarded him the prestigious Padma Shri for distinguished service in science and engineering. 

Bhaumik has followed a strong passion for popularizing advanced science. "Every moment of the day, we are touched by science and technology," he has said. "I believe that we physicists can do a better job of showing how technology spawned by physics has affected all our lives." Bhaumik wrote the Code Name God, published in 2005, which explains why the discoveries of modern physics can be reconciled with the great truths of the world religions. He also wrote a follow-up book, The Cosmic Detective, which introduces the study of the universe—called modern cosmology—for the scientifically inclined general reader.

Bhaumik also co-created an animated television show called Cosmic Quantum Ray about an intergalactic team of heroes, including a brainiac kid from Earth, who save the universe from destructive forces using their scientific smarts.