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Saturday, September 26, 2020

Govind Swarup: The man who put India on the world map of radio astronomy

Govind Swarup spent decades developing radio astronomy and setting up giant telescopes in India, emerging as one of the tallest scientists in the field.

Written by Anjali Marar | Pune | September 8, 2020 8:48:53 pm
Govind Swarup died in Pune on Monday, at the age of 91. (Source: Video screengrab/Google Arts & Culture)

In the mid-1940s, when world scientists tasted early success after experiments in the emerging field of radio astronomy, Govind Swarup, then a student in his teens, started envisioning how India could contribute to this field.

Swarup spent decades developing radio astronomy and setting up giant telescopes in India, emerging as one of the tallest scientists in the field. He died in Pune on Monday, at the age of 91.

Radio astronomy started gaining ground when radars built during World War-II first picked up radio signals emerging from the Sun. Soon after the war, the first scientific results emerged and a small community of radio astronomers formed in both the UK and Australia.

Swarup was among some handpicked Indian scientists who were sent to the Radiophysics Division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIRO), Australia, from 1953 to 1955.

After his lessons in Australia and doctoral studies at Stanford University, Swarup got the idea of working towards strengthening the field of radio astronomy in India. He wanted to establish instrumentation facilities in India that would be used by a community of world-class radio astronomers.

During their overseas stint, sometime in 1961, Swarup and his contemporaries M R Kundu, T Krishnan and T K Menon wrote to many Indian institutions about this idea. A positive reply came only from Homi Bhabha, who later went on to create special positions at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) to accommodate the bright, foreign-trained scientists.

“Swarup was a man full of ideas, a dreamer and a doer. He had a long and fruitful career. He will always remain a man who made rich contributions to India’s science through his works in radio astronomy,” said veteran space and communications scientist E V Chitnis, a long-time friend of Swarup’s.

Radio astronomy in India took flight after Swarup established Kalyan Radio Telescope, near Mumbai in 1965, followed by the Ooty Radio Telescope in the early 1970s.

Chitnis highlighted Swarup’s drive for Indian-made telescopes and instruments. “He was against any imports, be it of people or instruments,” he said.

The instruments were built and ready, but India had fewer radio astronomers than scientists involved in optical astronomy.

“Swarup was instrumental in creating a whole new field of astronomy and a community of radio astronomy in the country,” shared Ajit Kembhavi, former director of Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), whose association with Swarup dates back to their TIFR days in the 1970s.

With a dream of expanding research in the field, the hunt for the next site to set up a low- frequency radio telescope began soon. In 1987, he took charage as the project director of the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT), and later became the founder-director of TIFR-National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) in 1993.

In recent years, the GMRT, functional since 2002, needed an upgradation.

“When the proposal of upgradation of GMRT was first shared, Swarup not only encouraged the team but also said that he would wait eagerly for its completion. He provided critical views from time to time but in the end, it was like taking GMRT to a whole new level of operations,” NCRA director Yashwant Gupta.

Swarup’s interest in astronomy never faded. Gupta recalled how, during certain informal talks on the expansion of GMRT, he displayed child-like enthusiasm and would check on its progress. Swarup was also involved in the proposed Square Kilometre Array (SKA), the world’s largest radio telescope, which India is a part of.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu and Lok Sabha Speaker Om Birla have joined scientific communities across India, and abroad, in expressing their condolences over Swarup’s death

K Vijay Raghavan, principal scientific advisor to the Government of India, said Swarup was an institution. He tweeted, “The world of astronomy has lost a great scientist, an institution, and a telescope-builder. Ever-smiling, not one to take a no for anything he wanted to be done, he took on many impossible tasks, inspiring colleagues to accomplish them”.

Eminent nuclear scientist Anil Kakodkar expressed his grief at Swarup’s demise. He tweeted, “A rare scientist who created world-class, first-of-its-kind radio telescopes that are popular with astronomers even today. I was fortunate enough to have known and interacted with him.”

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