Leading astrophysicist Thanu Padmanabhan, a native of the city, revives memories of his ‘Trivandrum days’ and his work to popularise science and mathematics among youngsters to motivate them to pursue pure sciences
“Beam me up, Scotty! There is no intelligent life out here.”
This popular quote, attributed to the famous movie series Star Trek, is the introduction to the home page of one of the greatest astrophysicists of our times. What follows is a delightful and insightful introduction to the mind, reading, attitude and work of this outstanding physicist and academic who has been deepening and changing our understanding of the universe through his pioneering work in quantum theory, astronomy and gravity. Interspersed with quotes and stories, the page is ideal to get to know the person, scientist, academic and author that is Thanu Padmanabhan.
A distinguished professor at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, Dr. Padmanabhan is also president of the Cosmology Commission of the International Astronomical Union.
Born in 1957, Dr. Padmanabhan completed his graduation and post graduation from the University of Kerala. He did his doctorate from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.
Winner of several awards and honours, including the Padma Shri in 2007, Dr. Padmanabhan was in the city to deliver the ‘Infosys Science Foundation Lectures’, organised to ‘popularise science and research and to inspire and motivate young minds to pursue science as a career’. He was the first winner of the Infosys Foundation Prize in 2009, which was awarded to him for his contribution to a deeper understanding of Einstein's theory of gravity in relation to thermodynamics.
Prior to his talk, Dr. Padmanabhan agreed to walk down memory lane to recount his student days in the city. He also talked about his publications to demystify physics for youngsters. Edited excerpts from an interview:
The Trivandrum Science Society
As an undergraduate student of physics in University College, I was active in the Society begun by our seniors Arun Kumar and his brother, Renjith Kumar, in the mid-seventies, I think. After they left, I, along with V. Parameswaran Nair and S.G. Rajeev, was active in the Society. We used to learn and teach very advanced level of physics on our own. In those days, the University College was a centre of excellence and our teachers were great academics. They never stopped us from our pursuits though we deviated from the syllabus and concentrated on areas that were of interest to us. But our teachers encouraged us and let us be. As a result, I was able to write a research paper while I was still doing my B.Sc.
We had eminent scientists interacting with us and the then Vice-Chancellor always encouraged us. Another person who took a keen interest in our activities was K.P.P. Nambiar [then at the helm of Keltron].
As students we pushed for an elective on Theoretical Physics, which we wanted, and, in no time, it was granted. That showed the interest the authorities took in us.
The Story of Physics
Yes, that is a book I am happy about. I wrote that as a general introduction for students of all ages. The humour should appeal to children and that tone is maintained throughout the book. It is there in the public domain and I have not asked for any royalty or rights over that book. It has been translated into Bengali, Marathi, Kannada, Telugu, Hindi…it remains popular in many states in India.
As for its Malayalam translation, I think it has been done. But I have not got a copy. There is a popular science movement in Kerala and we have magazines like Eureka that is doing well. So I hope this book of cartoons that talks about Physics is also doing well.
Playtheme and as a columnist
Playtheme, my column comprising mathematical puzzles and problems in a science magazine, were meant for students in Plus Two and college. It had a dedicated readership and I used to invite readers to send me solutions to the problems and questions. The best replies used to get a prize. Today, many of the youngsters who are now making a name for themselves in the realm of science were readers of the column.
‘Never read an Upanishad until you are ready to write one’
(Laughs) Well, you know I grew up in a canonical Brahmin household in the city and as a child I learnt the Vedas, the Gita, the Upanishad and so on. I knew most of the verses by the time I was nine or ten. But that was Marxist Kerala and so I grew up and began thinking and questioning. By about 14, I became exposed to Advaitha and meditation and that has also stayed with me. The hyperlinks to my home page has my writings on philosophy, Upanishads…
Awards and the scientist
Awards do matter as it motivates and honours scientists. I had no clue I had been selected for the Padma Shri till a friend from Kerala called me up to congratulate me. I was happy to have got it. My name had been sent from Maharashtra. It is also true that not many scientists have been conferred this award but that is changing now. Similarly, I was happy to have won the Infosys award because the jury that selected me comprised world-class scientists. I was proud that they had selected me.
Attracting youngsters to pure sciences
The government is taking a great lot of interest in promoting research and pure sciences. But the system of education has to change if we want Nobel laureates. I am planning a mentorship programme with funding to promote and encourage youngsters with a bent for physics.