Dr. Jayant Vishnu Narlikar needs no introduction. He is one of those very few scientists in India who have contributed to the field of Astrophysics throughout their life. Born on July 19, 1938, in Kolhapur, Maharashtra to a family of scholars, Narlikar – a Senior Wrangler, or mathematics topper at Cambridge – served as a Berry Ramsey fellow in King’s College, Cambridge University until 1972 and, later on, became the Founder-Director of Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA). Former President of the Cosmology Commission of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Prof. Narlikar, who has also served as the Chairperson of the Advisory Group for Textbooks in Science and Mathematics published by NCERT, is globally known for his work in cosmology, specifically championing models alternative to the popular Big Bang Model.
It was like a dream come true when the reply of my questionnaire to Padma Vibhushan Dr. Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, flashed on my laptop screen. If one needs to name the ‘Pitamah Bhishma’ of Astrophysics for the whole of today’s India, there’s only one name and he is none other than Prof. Narlikar. Way back in March 2013, I had a conversation with him to decide whether to take up Science after Class X. Although I decided to pursue studies in the Humanities instead of Science, he continues to be one of my most favorite scientist and a source of inspiration. Keeping the trend of many students opting to study Science in view, a few months ago, I decided to conduct this interview with Prof. Narlikar.
Subhrangshu Pratim Sarmah (SPS): Sir, why did you select science as your area of study? When was the decision taken?
Prof. Narlikar (JVN): I liked mathematics right from the beginning, say, from primary school days. Later I also began to like science. My father encouraged my interests by giving me books on recreational maths to read. At the secondary school level, he also set up for us chemistry and physics laboratories. I went to Cambridge at the age of nineteen to study maths and it was here that I grew interest in theoretical astrophysics. This was largely through the lectures by Fred Hoyle there.
SPS: What was the role of your parents or family as a whole in shaping your destiny as one of the giant figures in scientific research in the world? Would you like to share any incident with us regarding this? I have read the story about your uncle offering you difficult sums to solve in the book ‘One Hundred Reasons to be a Scientist’.
JVN: My father was always supportive of my mathematical and scientific interests. Additionally my maternal uncle Morumama, who was staying with us for 2-3 years for his M.Sc. studies also contributed. He noticed that we had two wall-blackboards. These had been set up by my father and had been used by my brother and me for recreational purposes. Knowing my aptitude for mathematics, he began to use the smaller of them for writing, “Challenge problems for JVN.” The writing on the board would stay until either I solved the problem or conceded defeat. This provided good stimulus to me and I picked up a lot more of maths than my school syllabus required.
SPS: As you were born and brought up in British India, what differences have you noticed between the pre and post-independence era in the field of education, science and society at large?
JVN: I feel that the people of India are more independent in thinking than they were in the British era. At the same time, I do not think there was as much corruption then as there is now. The fields of education, science and social amenities are more extensive today than they were before independence.
SPS: What were the greatest lessons you learnt from your legendary teacher, scientist Fred Hoyle?
JVN: Fred Hoyle did not accept any scientific idea until he was satisfied that experimentally or observationally it was proven. This meant he often had conflicts with bandwagon type supporters of some ideas, such as the big bang model which states that the universe started existing after a big explosion. I have tried to follow this independence of thinking.
SPS: How would you explain the ‘Hoyle–Narlikar Theory’, in a simple way for our readers, for which you are well known in the world of Astrophysics?
JVN: In the HN theory we have introduced the notion that inertia of matter arises because of the rest of the matter in the universe. Ernst Mach, a nineteenth-century German philosopher-scientist, had proposed such a notion without giving a mathematical formulation of the concept. Today it is known as Mach’s principle. We provided a mathematical structure to this idea. It led us to a gravity theory more comprehensive than Newtonian or Einsteinian ideas. We have a few new predictions which will require more detailed observations. We hope the large telescopes under consideration today will provide some relevant evidence.
SPS: As a Senior Wrangler of Cambridge you could have become a top level civil servant, but you opted for teaching. Why?
JVN: The popular career options in my time were the administrative services and engineering or medical fields. I was taken up with science and did not consider these more popular options.
SPS: Tell us a bit about your work in championing models providing an alternative to the popular Big Bang model.
JVN: As mentioned [above] I do not feel enthusiastic about the big bang model because it demands speculations far exceeding actual evidence. In this model, the notions of dark matter, dark energy and strange [kinds] of matter have to be accepted without evidence. So Fred Hoyle, Geoffrey Burbidge (alas, both are no longer with us now) and I proposed a new model in 1993. Known as the quasi steady state cosmology (QSSC) it has [a] universe without a beginning or end, having oscillations on a time scale of 50 billion years and a longer term expansion on the scale of a thousand billion years. We claim that this model explains all the presently observed features of the universe. If we are successful in demonstrating that very old (20 billion years or more) stars do exist today, that will be an important evidence against the big bang universe and in favor of the QSSC.
SPS: How was your experience as the President of the Cosmology Commission of the International Astronomical Union?
JVN: I appreciated the honor which at least recognized my work done against the bandwagon ideas. Several astronomers appreciated my role as an honest critic!
SPS: How is the environment of India for scientific research today? Are we, the Indians, lacking somewhere in developing a scientific temperament in comparison to the west? I mean, the murder of Marathi activist Narendra Dabholkar seems to indicate it.
JVN: There are two different things here! Indians need to be more appreciative of research and learn to be self-critical. There is adequate support for science for R&D, but no one checks if the money is spent in a productive way. Secondly, we as a nation tend to believe in superstitions and do not appreciate the scientific temper. Dabholkar’s killing was probably because of his efforts to eradicate superstitions. I sincerely hope the mystery of his murder will be solved and we will come to know the motive.
SPS: During 1999-2003, you headed an international team in a pioneering experiment designed to sample air for microorganisms in the atmosphere at heights of up to 41km. What were its results?
JVN: We planned to sample air at 41 km height for microorganisms. Normally we do not expect bacteria from the Earth to rise that high and so if we found such microbes we would have a possibility of those being extraterrestrial, falling from above. Fred Hoyle and Chandra Wickramasinghe from U.K. had argued that bacteria and viruses are present in the interstellar space and some of these may come near us riding on comets. If a cometary tail brushes the Earth’s atmosphere, some bacteria may be transferred there and then fall down under [the influence of] gravity.
We sent balloons in 2001 and 2005 up to this height (the maximum possible!) and collected air samples. They were sent to biology labs for examination. In the first experiment, the biology group in Cardiff, U.K. found live cells and an examination of another sample by a group in Sheffield revealed bacteria. The group in CCMB (Centre for Cellular & Molecular Biology) lab in Hyderabad found bacteria which was resistant to UV radiation. In the 2005 experiment, this property was also seen in the bacteria (12 types) found by two labs (CCMB and Pune-based National Centre for Cell Science). Three of these species were unknown on the Earth before. They were named after Hoyle, Aryabhatta, the 5th-century astronomer, and ISRO, the sponsoring agency. These findings are suggestive of the microbes being extraterrestrial but for a proof we need to look for some way of determining the nuclear isotopic composition of the captured bacteria. A future experiment will be needed for this purpose.
SPS: You were appointed the Chairperson, Advisory Group for Textbooks in Science and Mathematics. How far, in your opinion, are the various textbooks published by NCERT able to generate the thirst for knowledge in students? What improvements will you suggest?
JVN: The present textbooks are improvements on the earlier ones. But I would like to reduce the information content and add more to the comprehension of basic concepts. This may come in stages. Also, one needs to create an environment in which schools are able to have access to experimental facilities.
SPS: As a global figure in Astronomy, you once featured on Carl Sagan’s TV show ‘Cosmos: A Personal Voyage’ in the late 1980s. How was your personal relation with Sagan? What is your view of this visionary Astrophysicist?
JVN: Carl Sagan was a charismatic figure who was sincere in his desire to enthuse people [about] science and its sociology. He was an excellent scientist and science popularizer.
SPS: You have written science fiction, novels and short stories in English, Hindi, and Marathi. I have gone through your science fiction The Adventure (an excerpt of it was there in our Class XI NCERT English textbook) and realised how JVN aptly harmonised historical plots and characters with science fiction. Do you have any future plans for writing more such stories? I have also gone through your article titled ‘Where time stands still’. What are the things we should keep in mind while writing a scientific article and science fiction?
JVN: The story Adventure as printed in the textbook is half of the original. By some mistake, the earlier half is missed out. After my pointing [that] out, NCERT put the whole story on their website. I hope it is easier to understand now. While a science article is expected to be factually correct, a science fiction story can have fictional additions to the science we know. Of course, the additions should not conflict with the science we know.
SPS: What is your advice to students in general and students studying science in particular?
JVN: Try to understand the basic concepts and do not hesitate to ask questions.
SPS: I am from Assam. Have you ever visited the state? If yes, how was your experience? Our school students, sometimes opt for science but later repent as they pursue it under parental pressure, or are simply following the popular trend, but end up failing to grasp anything.What is your advice? Moreover, should ‘engineering’ (later leading to a job in a private company) and ‘medical’ be the ultimate goal of studying Science?
JVN: My five visits to Assam have been happy ones with friendly interactions with people there. My advice to students is to “opt for science if you really like it.” There are good career prospects in scientific R&D but to appreciate them remember my advice [given] above.
SPS: If you are given a second life, what will you choose to be born as?
JVN: Same as now!
SPS: Do you have any regrets in life?
JVN: Perhaps I miss reading many books for lack of time, study Sanskrit (which I love as a language) to a deeper level and maybe wish I had seen more of the world (although I have visited 50 countries).
SPS: Your motto after a lifetime of experience which you would like to convey to us?
JVN: Whatever you do, give your best to it.