Renowned astrophysicist Thanu Padmanabhan passes away

Thanu Padmanabhan.

Eminent theoretical physicist and cosmologist Thanu Padmanabhan passed away, aged 64, here on Friday. According to sources, the Padma Shri awardee collapsed after suffering a massive heart attack at his Pune residence in the morning. He was rushed to the hospital but died on arrival.

Tributes and condolences poured in from colleagues, academics and science enthusiasts across the country.

K. VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, said in a tweet, “Shocked to hear of the passing of Professor Thanu Padmanabhan. His research linking general relativity and thermodynamics in new ways, and in other areas, has been widely recognized. Scholar, communicator, extraordinary scientist, friend to many. He will be much missed”.


From Thiruvananthapuram

Affectionately known to friends and colleagues as ‘Paddy’, Professor Padmanabhan, born in 1957, was a native of Thiruvananthapuram. He did his graduation and postgraduation from the University College, Kerala University, winning Gold medals in both for topping the varsity.

His brilliance and precocity in theoretical physics was evident right from the start when he published his first research paper in General Relativity at the age of 20 while being a B.Sc. student.

Following his Masters, Professor Padmanabhan joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) for his PhD in 1979 and became a faculty there while still working towards his doctorate, which he completed in 1983.

Moved to Pune in 1992

After a stint at the TIFR, Professor Padmanabhan moved to Pune in 1992 and began his long and fruitful association with the city-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) where he became a Distinguished Professor and served as Dean, Core Academic Programmes, from 1997-2015.

A colossus in the realm of Indian astrophysics, Professor Padmanabhan’s influence at the IUCAA was second only to the great Jayant Narlikar, emeritus professor at the IUCAA.


“He [Prof. Padmanabhan] dreamt formulae. He never played to the gallery and did not believe in ‘dumbing down’ while demystifying abstract physics concepts for the layperson… his passing away is a great personal loss,” said eminent scientist, educationist and Padma Shri awardee Arvind Gupta, who ran the popular Science Centre at the IUCAA for several years.

Speaking to The Hindu , Mr. Gupta, who is internationally famous as a ‘toy inventor’ and for his many books helping to popularize science in India, recounted the indelible impression that Professor Padmanabhan made through his column in the popular Science Age magazine, where Mr. Gupta used to contribute as well.

“Professor Padmanabhan used to write a column in the mid-1980s Science Age titled The Story of Physics - a two-page comic strip serial charting the thrilling history of physics for children and laypeople. The magazine, which regrettably folded up in 1988, was edited by Surendra Jha, who was the father of science journalism in India,” said Mr. Gupta, who contributed to Science Age as well with his column Little Science .

He recalled that on a visit to Pune in 2000, he knocked on Professor Padmanabhan’s door at the IUCAA and expressed the desire to translate The Story of Physics columns into Hindi in a book form.

“We had great regard for each other. He said how he relished my Little Science columns. I told him I enjoyed His Story of Physics columns and wanted to translate them. They totalled 48 pages… He [Padmanabhan] pulled out a photo copy and gave me the columns which I translated into Hindi. Later, they became so popular that they were translated into several regional languages, including Marathi and Telugu. Professor Padmanabhan’s only request was that he would not take any royalties,” Mr. Gupta said, recalling his former colleague’s deep humility.

Science populariser

A prolific writer and science populariser, Professor Padnamabhan authored several books which have become the standard texts, including the comprehensive three-volume Theoretical Physics (2000), the hugely accessible After the First Three Minutes: The Story of our Universe (1998), and a masterful exposition of quantum theory for the layman titled Quantum Themes: The Charms of the Microworld (2009).

Along with his wife Vasanthi, Professor Padmanabhan also authored the popular Dawn of Science (2019), a lively 24-chapter history of science whose narrative arc stretched from antiquity to the age of Newton that was translated into Chinese, Portuguese and Polish.

Notable among his many awards was the Infosys Science Prize, which was given to him in Physical Sciences by the Infosys Science Foundation in 2009. Professor Padmanabhan also won the First Prize in the prestigious Gravity Essay Contest in 2008 (awarded by the Gravity Research Foundation, USA) while his work won different prizes in this challenging contest for a number of years.

Somak Raychaudhury, Director, IUCAA, tweeted, “This is one of the saddest days in the history of the @IUCAApune and the Indian scientific community today. Professor Thanu Padmanabhan passed away this morning as a result of a cardiac arrest”.

In addition to being an adjunct faculty at several IISERs (Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research) across the country, Professor Padmanabhan served in various capacities at institutes abroad: he was the Sackler Distinguished Astronomer of the Institute of Astronomy (IoA), Cambridge, U.K.; Visiting Faculty at Princeton University, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge; and the Pauli Center/ETH in Zurich.

The much-feted astrophysicist was awarded the Padma Shri in 2007.

He is survived by his wife and daughter Hamsa Padmanabhan, who is a Scientific Collaborator and principal investigator of the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) Ambizione Grant at the University of Geneva.

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Printable version | Apr 25, 2022 11:37:44 am |