Gravitational waves: They scorned Sanjeev Dhurandhar three decades ago, today he is the toast of modern science

He led the solo Indian group in the initial era of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) for a decade.

Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Pune | Updated: February 12, 2016 1:27 pm
gravitational waves, Albert Einstein, einstein, einstein garvitational waves theory, General Theory of Relativity, Caltech, MIT, LIGO, LIGO gravitational waves, IUCAA, IUCAA pune, Ligo project IUCAA, india news, science news, latest news Prof. Sanjeev Dhurandhar at IUCAA during the announcement of detection of gravitational waves. (Express Photo)

Three decades before international scientists announced they have detected the gravitational waves Albert Einstein had proposed, a young scientist was already talking about the idea. Sanjeev Dhurandhar’s ideas were then greeted with incredulity but, on Thursday, he was the toast of the scientific community who gathered at the Inter-University Centre of Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune.

Prof Jayant Narlikar, former IUCAA director, recalled the 1980s. “Those were the days when everyone was talking about electromagnetic waves and here was this young man talking about theories and experiments related to gravitational waves,” he said, as he introduced the Pune-born Dhurandhar as one of the 1,000 key scientists involved in detecting gravitational waves 100 years after Einstein had proposed their existence.

Watch Video: Gravitational waves from black holes discovered

“In the 1980s, Dhurandhar was told by senior colleagues that he had no credibility when this remarkable individual had proposed a model with a theoretical backup to explore gravitational waves,” Prof Narlikar said.

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Ajit Kembhavi, another former IUCAA director, nodded in agreement. He said Dhurandhar never gave up and in the process trained several students and focused his research in this area. Today most of Dhurandhar’s students are with gravitational wave groups in various countries and have been involved in this exciting discovery, Kembhavi said.

“I still remember how in the 1980s people at Oxford and Cambridge used to scorn Dhurandhar and his group then,” said Prof Somak Raychaudhury, the current director of IUCAA. “But today 90 per cent of the researchers abroad working on gravitation waves have been his students and now heading their teams that has led to this pathbreaking discovery.”

Dhurandhar himself has put the incredulity he faced behind him.

“It was only natural not to believe,” said the Pune-born scientist. “We did not have enough technology 25 years ago to detect such waves. So I do not really blame people who did not believe us. All I can say is that I am overwhelmed. This is such good science — a new discipline of physics — I say.”

What they did

The group led by Dhurandhar at IUCAA had initiated work on developing techniques for detection of weak signals which would eventually lead to detection of gravitational waves. He led the solo Indian group in the initial era of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) for a decade.

The Indian Initiative in Gravitational-Wave Observations (IndIGO), set up in 2009, involves 61 scientists from nine institutions — CMI Chennai, ICTS-TIFR Bengaluru, IISER-Kolkata, IISER-Trivandrum, IIT Gandhinagar, IPR Gandhinagar, IUCAA Pune, RRCAT Indore and TIFR Mumbai. The discovery paper has 35 authors from these institutions.

India’s current “gravitational wave community” has engaged in research over three decades at several institutes. Prominently cited in the discovery paper is the theoretical work that combined black holes and gravitational waves, published by C V Vishveshwara in 1970.

At IUCAA, Narlikar, Anil Kakodkar and Vishveshwara were among those who thumped their desks and cheered as they watched a live broadcast of David Reitze, executive director of LIGO-US, making the historic announcement —

“Till now we have been deaf. Now the universe has spoken to us through gravitational waves.”

The congratulatory handshakes after that were unceasing.

“I never thought gravitational waves would be detected during my working period here” said Prof Raychaudhury. “We have validated physics. This is a new era, dawn of new physics.”