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The professor who loved puzzles, and had his own comic strip on physics

Padmanabhan, or Paddy as he was known to his colleagues and students, went on to achieve great heights in theoretical physics, making important contributions to the fields of gravity and quantum theory, structure and formation of universe.

Written by Anjali Marar | Pune |
Updated: September 18, 2021 10:14:54 am
Prof Thanu Padmanabhan receives the MP Birla Memorial Award 2019 from HV Lodha, Chairman of MP Birla Group, in Kolkata. (Express Photo/File)

Thanu Padmanabhan had acquired outstanding mathematical abilities quite early in his life, thanks to the guidance of his father who was an extremely gifted mathematician but was forced to take up a job with the Forest Department in Kerala.

An academic career in pure mathematics was what Padmanabhan had decided to pursue. But that was before he had picked up Richard Feynman’s classic Lectures in Physics, the book that has lured countless youngsters like him from several generations to physics. In a profile included in the book Gravity and the Quantum, a collection of Padmanabhan’s articles released on the occasion of his 60th birthday, his PhD students Jasjit Bagla and Sunu Engineer wrote that Feynman’s book had a big influence on him even though he was not a big fan of the celebrated scientist as a person. “It appeared to me that theoretical physics beautifully combines the best of objective science and the elegance of pure mathematics,” Padmanabhan, who died in Pune on Friday, aged 64, is quoted in that profile as saying.

Padmanabhan, or Paddy as he was known to his colleagues and students, went on to achieve great heights in theoretical physics, making important contributions to the fields of gravity and quantum theory, structure and formation of universe.

His early work was done at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, where he did his PhD under Jayant Narlikar,
starting an association that lasted a lifetime. Padmanabhan shifted to the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune in 1992 and remained there till his death, researching, teaching, and popularising science.

“As a teacher, he could explain any topic or subject to a student with great ease. He taught me that discipline and hard work, when coupled, would ensure that one keeps growing,” said Dr Tirthankar Roy Choudhury, Padmanabhan’s PhD student between 1999 and 2003 at IUCAA.

His demise came as a shock to the scientific community, especially those at IUCAA. A lot of them turned up to pay their last
respects on Friday afternoon. He was later cremated at Aundh.

Padmanabhan could teach any course in Physics and Astronomy with equal ease, said Dr Yogesh Wadedekar, senior scientist at National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA),Pune.

Padmanabhan loved solving puzzles, playing chess and watching movies across genres.

“There was a phase when he used to watch a lot of movies on TV. Some of us students used to pull his leg about his liking for the actress Tabu. He used to throw a party for us whenever he won an award or a recognition — which were numerous.

Whenever we used to go out for dinners, he would order tiramisu for dessert and we used to again make fun of this habit,” shared A N Ramaprakash, scientist and colleague at IUCAA.

“He would often play games of chess on the computer. He was a sharp thinker and would be the problem spotter,” recalled Sanjit Mitra, another colleague at IUCAA.

Many never get a chance to meet their idols in life but Tirthankar Roy Choudhury got to not only work closely but remain associated with his idol for nearly 20 years. “When I was chosen under his guide-ship for PhD, it was like a dream come
true. He would never stop or be tired and would often take up new and the most difficult problems,” recalled Choudhury.

Padmanabhan was an outstanding scientist who could catch a scientific argument quickly while at the same time admit if he did not possess knowledge about the topic, said Prof Yashwant Gupta, centre director, NCRA.

Through his work over the past decade or so, Padmanabhan had discovered a deep connection between the underlying quantum nature of the structure of space-time and what we perceive as the macro properties of gravity, Ramaprakash stated. “This is seminal and path-breaking. He was just warming up to understanding the consequences of this discovery, but had to go,” he said.

Mitra particularly remnisences the extended conversations he had with Padmanabhan, when the two would cross paths during their respective evening walks.

“We would get talking on any topic and would often end up having interesting discussions lasting even upto 45 minutes during the evening walks,” he said.

While pursuing science was a daily affair, Padmanabhan also took to writing books — both on advanced and popular science — in the early 1990s, and soon realised the need of a personal computer at his home.

Roy Choudhury remembers Padmanabhan’s witty nature and said that some people would fail to understand the light humour. When assigned teaching responsibility many years ago, Padmanabhan guided Roy Choudhury from time-to-time.

Padmanabhan’s comic strip called The Story of Physics was both popular and loved by students, shared Dr Raka Dabhade, head, Department of Physics, Fergusson College. “His humble nature always attracted students to interact with him. In spite of his busy schedule, he would find time to clear doubts of the students via emails,” said Dabhade.

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