LIFE

On the vast field that is radio astronomy

HE HEADS one of the most prestigious institutions in this part of the country - the Radio Astronomy Centre (RAC), which is part of the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR).

Holder of a Ph.D. (Physics, Radio Astronomy) from the University of Bombay, P.K. Manoharan joined the TIFR in 1975 and rose to become the chief of the RAC in 2001. He was also a visiting scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre (Centre for Solar Physics and Space Weather, Catholic University of America, Washington).

He leads a team of scientific and engineering personnel in operating and maintaining the 530-metre long and 30-metre wide radio telescope of RAC at Muthorai near Ooty.

In an interaction with D. Radhakrishnan in Udhagamandalam, P.K. Manoharan says that radio astronomy (the study of Universe through radio waves which reach us from many of its constituents like the sun, planets and stars) has come a long way since it was born 72 years ago.

Over the past 30 years, the Ooty Radio Telescope has produced many important astronomical results on radio galaxies, quasars, supernovae, pulsars, the interstellar and interplanetary media. A new technique developed at Ooty to study the interplanetary scintillation observations provides valuable information about the solar wind and solar wind magnetic storms that affect the near-Earth environment.

Major eruptive events on the sun, such as flares or Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) can have a profound influence on the terrestrial environment. CMEs can interact with the Earth's magnetosphere to generate major geomagnetic storms and sub-storms, sometimes affecting communication and power grid systems and accelerating energy particles that have been known to damage communication satellites and also interfere with the working of astronauts in space.

The Ooty telescope's scintillation measurements were useful in identifying and understanding the evolution of disturbances caused by powerful CMEs.

When asked about the space-related research done in various countries in the past and now, he said that in another five years countries were likely to join hands to explore space.

"The scientific community in India is equal to Western groups," he says However "our universities have a lot to learn from Western universities, particularly those in the US," he adds.

Is science becoming less attractive to school and college students? "Highly motivated students with an outstanding academic record and aptitude for experimental work are selected periodically as research trainees by the RAC. They should have an M.Sc. (Physics) or a B.E./B.Tech.degree."

They undergo one-year training in Radio Astronomy techniques after the successful completion of which they are offered a regular research staff position. The Ph.D. recipients from the TIFR have been offered excellent positions in India and abroad," he said.

Describing fundamental research and applied research as the two eyes of the scientific community, he said that they must always go hand in hand.

Stating that science-related work should not be equated with nine-to-five jobs, he said that scientists should be well trained, hard working and sincere.

"If a child aspires to become a space scientist, his/her parents should provide the necessary encouragement irrespective of their social or economic background," he stressed and added "the opportunities are vast".

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