Govind Swarup, Father Of Indian Radio Astronomy, Passes Away Aged 91

Govind Swarup, Father Of Indian Radio Astronomy, Passes Away Aged 91Govind Swarup (1929-2020)
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  • Pioneering Indian astronomer Govind Swarup has passed away at the age of 91 years.

    He laid the foundation for quality radio astronomy research in India.

Inspirational Indian astronomer Govind Swarup has passed away aged 91 years. He was Emeritus Professor at the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA), Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), and a pioneering figure in the field of radio astronomy.

“It is with a heavy heart that we report the passing away of the doyen of Indian radio astronomy Prof. Govind Swarup in Pune. His legacy will live on in the form of the fine telescopes that he built (#ORT and #GMRT) and the generations of scientists and engineers he trained,” the Public Outreach Committee of the NCRA wrote in a tweet Monday night (7 September).

Professor Swarup led the installation of two premier observational facilities in India, the Ooty Radio Telescope near Udagamandalam, Tamil Nadu, and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) near Pune, Maharashtra. While the older, Ooty facility celebrated its fiftieth anniversary earlier this year, the GMRT has attracted astronomers from India and abroad since its inception.

Besides pioneering work on telescopes, Professor Swarup has contributed, alongside Professor V G Bhide, to the establishment of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs).

Today, seven IISERs are spread across different parts of the country, from Mohali in the north to Thiruvananthapuram in the south, all dedicated to the scientific enterprise in which Professor Swarup believed strongly.

Not just the urban pockets, Professor Swarup even took science education to the grassroots level, for instance, with his setting up of a rural science centre in Khodad, a village not far from the GMRT facility.

Professor Swarup himself came from the small town of Thakurdwara, Uttar Pradesh. He went to school and college in Moradabad and Allahabad and subsequently picked up Bachelors and Masters degrees in science, contrary to his mother’s wish for him to study engineering.

During this time, besides academics, Professor Swarup found himself in august company, such as when the Nobel prize-winning Indian physicist C V Raman spoke to him and others at Swarup’s college hostel.

The budding scientist also got the opportunity to study under the guidance of physicist K S Krishnan, the co-author in Raman’s landmark paper on the scattering of photons by matter. Krishnan’s guidance helped a young Swarup steer his research work in the early years.

After his graduation, Swarup had a stint at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) before moving to Sydney, Australia, for his radiophysics apprenticeship. After spending fruitful years down under developing expertise in solar radio astronomy, he returned to NPL, India, before shipping off overseas once again, this time to Harvard College Observatory.

At Harvard’s Fort Davis Radio Astronomy station in Texas, Swarup’s early success came as a discovery of a type of burst from the Sun called the “U-burst”. Later, Stanford came knocking and became the site of his doctoral research. He subsequently worked there as Assistant Professor too.

It was during this period in Stanford that Swarup began to venture outside of pure solar research and started acquiring the skill and acumen of building radio telescopes. Little would he have known how that early work would help him carry out foundational work in India.

In the early 1960s, Homi J Bhabha, the chief architect of India’s nuclear programme and founding-director of TIFR, came calling after Swarup sent out proposals to various institutes for the setting up of a radio astronomy facility in India. He obliged by returning to his country from the United States to lay the groundwork for radio astronomy. This work began at TIFR but eventually trickled to other premier institutes like Raman Research Institute, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, and Physical Research Laboratory.

Over the next half century, much of the wide-ranging radio astronomy research work — concerning objects near and far, from the Sun to the quasars — that emerged from India would be directly or indirectly traced back to the early groundwork laid by Professor Swarup and team.

Amidst his frugal innovation, Professor Swarup welcomed the big questions of life. “How did life originate on Earth?", he enquired in a video made by Google Arts and Culture. “Did it grow on the surface of the Earth? Or did it come from outer space?”

Professor Swarup’s research also put to test the then competing models for the birth of the universe — the steady state and big bang theories. His work in the 1970s led to results that were found to be consistent with the predictions of the big bang theory, the prevailing scientific model for how the universe began and evolved over the course of 13.7 billion years.

After five decades of work, however, the astronomer-innovator hung up his boots in 1994. But that didn’t prevent him from staying engaged with science education and research. “I am still publishing in the field of radio astronomy,” the 91-year-old told Science Reporter only recently in an email interview.

Professor Swarup received numerous awards for his work during his lifetime. He is a Padma Shri awardee and a recipient of the Department of Atomic Energy’s Lifetime Achievement Award. He was elected to the fellowship of the Indian Academy of Sciences in 1967 by Sir C V Raman himself. He was given space in the Royal Society of London too. For many decades, he has been a member of several scientific academies and congregations.

In 2007, he was even honoured with the 2007 Grote Reber Medal, the high honour for a radio astronomer; Grote Reber is regarded as the first radio astronomer.

All the awards, however, pale in comparison to what Professor Swarup has contributed to Indian science, Indian astronomy, and radio astronomy in particular. The fruits of his labour will be enjoyed by generations of scientists and scientific innovators to come.

As Somak Raychaudhary, the director of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, tweets, “He leaves behind an amazing legacy for all of us, and we will be talking about him a hundred years from now with the same respect.”

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