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A Conversation With The Award Winning Scientist Who Challenged The ‘Big Bang Theory’

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Jayant_Vishnu_Narlikar_-_Kolkata_2007-03-20_07324
Source: Wikipedia

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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