Remembering Thanu Padmanabhan

Prof. Thanu Padmanabhan   | Photo Credit: SAMPATH KUMAR G.P.

Thanu Padmanabhan, the renowned theoretical physicist who passed away in Pune on Friday, had dreamed of setting up a world-class scientific research institute in his home State Kerala, according to CPI(M) Polit Bureau member and former Education Minister M. A. Baby.

Mr. Baby recalls that he, as Education Minister in the 2006-2011 V. S. Achuthanandan ministry, had invited Prof. Padmanabhan to become the Vice Chancellor of the University of Kerala.

''He was our first choice, in fact. He politely declined, saying he wanted to continue with his research. But he said that he would like to establish a research institute of international standards with government help in the State some day,'' Mr. Baby, who had a long association with Prof. Padmanabhan, says.

Prof. Padmanabhan was, at the time of his death, a Distinguished Professor at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune. Although he was born and educated in Thiruvananthapuram, he was only an occasional visitor to the city in later decades. However, he owned nine cents of land at Nettayam he had purchased some years ago.

''Incidentally, I had gone to Nettayam to check out that land yesterday (Thursday) and called him from there. It was a dream of his that some day he would return to live in Thiruvananthapuram, although nothing was finalised. His death has come as a rude shock,'' Mr. Baby says.

Born to Thanu Iyer and Lakshmi in 1957, the young Padmanabhan did his schooling at the Government High School, Karamana, where he developed an interest in geometry. He joined the pre-degree course at the Government Arts College in 1973. It was during this period he encountered the Feynman Lectures in Physics and the Trivandrum Science Society.

First technical paper

He joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) for his PhD after topping the BSc and MSc Physics programmes at the University College. By then, he had, as a 20-year-old BSc student, authored his first technical paper on General Relativity. Prof. Padmanabhan — ‘Paddy’ to his close friends and associates — moved to the IUCAA in 1992.

''As a teacher and guide, he was exemplary,'' recalls Karthik Rajeev from Kollam, who did a summer project and later his PhD under the guidance of Prof. Padmanabhan at the IUCAA.

''We could speak to him freely and had access to him 24x7 to discuss problems. He always pushed us to tackle problems independently. He never forced us to do it his way,'' said Karthik who is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Indian Association for Cultivation of Science, Kolkata. ''His students were part of the family. We used to call it the 'Paddy Gharana','' he says.

In recent years, Prof. Padmanabhan's visits to Thiruvananthapuram were mostly in connection with events for popularising science among the masses. In August 2010, he visited the Kerala State Science and Technology Museum (KSSTM) for the inauguration of a new facility, recalls KSSTM officials. In 2013 and 2017, he visited KSSTM to deliver public lectures on 'Universe — Status and Prospects' and 'Story of Calendar,' they recall.

Science award

In August this year, the Kerala government had chosen Prof. Padmanabhan, along with Prof. M. S. Swaminathan, for the ‘Kerala Shastra Puraskaram.’

In a condolence message, Governor Arif Mohammed Khan said: ''He was a gifted science communicator and his masterful contribution to research in cosmology and astrophysics will be long remembered.

Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan said the renowned physicist was Kerala's gift to the scientific world. His demise is a big loss to the scientific community. Prof. Padmanabhan, who dedicated his life to the pursuit of scientific research, will continue to be an inspiration for students of science, the Chief Minister added.

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Printable version | Oct 20, 2021 11:10:14 PM |

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