Govind Swarup, pioneer of radio astronomy in India, dies at 91
Swarup was the brains behind the designing and installation of the Ooty Radio Telescope and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune
Physicist Govind Swarup, known for pioneering radio astronomy in India and setting up giant radio telescopes, died on Monday in Pune. He was 91. Swarup was the brains behind the designing and installation of the Ooty Radio Telescope and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope near Pune. Instead of studying the light emitted from an astronomical source like the regular optical telescopes, radio telescopes study the radio waves that are emitted.
The Ooty Radio Telescope is a 530 m long and 30 m tall cylindrical parabolic antennae. The rotation axis of the telescope is parallel to the Earth’s rotation axis, which means it can follow a source from the rise to set. The telescope has helped in many discoveries in astronomy, contributed to the studies of the sun, pulsars (stars that cannot be seen but send out pulses of radio signals), and distant radio quasars (extremely luminious astronomical objects formed by gas spiralling into a massive black hole). Using the telescope, Swarup and his students showed that radio source counts were consistent with the predictions of the Big Bang theory.
The construction of the telescope was completed in 1970 and it continues to be one of the world’s most sensitive radio telescopes.
In the 1980s, Swarup thought of a radio telescope even bigger than the one at Ooty and began his Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope project. It uses 30 fully steerable parabolic radio telescopes of 45 metre diameter the information from which is then superimposed to create the whole picture.
The goal of this massive new telescope, which opened up for research in 2000, was to discover primordial hydrogen clouds in the very distant universe.
After completing his graduation and post-graduation in physics from Allahabad University, Swarup discovered a new type of burst from the sun, called a Type U burst, during his time at Harvard Observatory. When he applied for a PhD in the US, all the major radio astronomy centres of the time – Harvard, Caltech, and Stanford accepted his application. Swarup was offered a position as an assistant professor in the US but he always wanted to return to India. Along with three other Indians working in the field of radio astronomy abroad, he proposed to set up a radio astronomy facility in India in 1961. The proposal was quickly accepted by Homi Bhabha, then director of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai. He sent Swarup a telegram conveying TIFR’s decision to set up a radio astronomy group, marking the beginning of radio astronomy in India.
“With Professor Govind Swarup’s demise, 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 up impossible tasks, inspired colleagues to accomplish them,” wrote principal scientific advisor to the government, K VijayRaghavan.
Swarup was part of London’s Royal Society and won India’s highest science award--Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize--and the fourth highest civilian award, Padma Shree.