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Thursday, October 01, 2020

Explained: Who was Govind Swarup, the pioneer of radio astronomy in India?

Regarded as the “Father of Indian Radio Astronomy”, Govind Swarup was the founder-director of TIFR – National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) in Pune.

Written by Mehr Gill , Edited by Explained Desk | New Delhi | Updated: September 13, 2020 11:29:34 am
Swarup was born in Thakurwada in Uttar Pradesh in 1929. (Source: Video screengrab/Google Arts & Culture)

Govind Swarup, the man who pioneered radio astronomy in India, died on Monday in Pune following a brief illness. He was 91. Swarup is credited with conceptualising and leading the team that set up the Ooty Radio Telescope (ORT) and Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope (GMRT).

Regarded as the “Father of Indian Radio Astronomy”, Swarup was the founder-director of TIFR – National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) in Pune.

On Tuesday, the principal scientific advisor to the government of India, K VijayRaghavan, said on Twitter, “…the world of astronomy has lost a great scientist, institution-, and telescope- builder. Ever-smiling, not one to take a no for anything he wanted to be done, he took on many impossible tasks, inspired colleagues to accomplish them.”

Among the rewards that Swarup received during his lifetime are the Herschel Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, Padma Shri, the URSI Dellinger Medal, and the Grote Reber Medal of Australia.

Who was Govind Swarup?

Swarup was born in Thakurwada in Uttar Pradesh in 1929. He completed his master’s degree from Allahabad University in 1950 and went on to pursue his doctoral studies at Stanford University in 1961.

A tribute offered to Swarup on his 90th birthday in the Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage mentions that he accepted an Assistant Professorship in Electrical Engineering at Stanford University in 1961, soon after he had completed his doctorate. The tribute goes on to refer to Swarup as someone with “remarkable inventions” who “helped reshape astronomical instrumentation”.

After completing his doctorate, Swarup contemplated going back to India and discussed these ideas with two colleagues, M R Kundu and T K Menon, who were also working in the US at the time. The idea was to return to India with the aim of developing the field of radio astronomy.

Subsequently, one of their mentors Chris Christiansen wrote to Swarup in 1960 saying, “… you two [i.e. Swarup and Krishnan] and Menon and Kundu should get together for a united attack on the monolith of Indian bureaucracy – separately I can‘t see you getting anywhere in radioastronomy very fast … I know you all, and feel that [the four of you] would make a very fine team” and suggested that they include T Krishnan to the team.

Swarup returned to India in 1965, and soon joined the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

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Setting up the ORT was no easy task but Swarup was aware of the geographical advantage India enjoyed owing to its proximity to the equator. His clear vision helped set up the 500 metre-long, 30 metre-wide set of dishes in a cylindrical parabolic fashion, covering an area of 15,000 square metre in the lowest cost possible, yet the telescope was the largest at that time.

The ORT, which was completed in 1970, makes it possible to track celestial objects for 10 hours continuously and is one of the most sensitive telescopes in the world.

With the experience of ORT, Swarup decided to set up Pune’s GMRT, an array of 30 dish antennas spread across a distance of 25 km, arranged in a ‘Y’ shape at a pristine yet suitable location at Khodad in Junnar taluka. Since 2002, GMRT has facilitated some novel discoveries in the field of astronomy. Swarup had also guided the upgradation process that the GMRT underwent in recent years.

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