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Govind Swarup, who pioneered radio astronomy in India, dies at 91

Govind Swarup was responsible for setting up India’s first group of radio astronomers, and is credited with building world’s largest and most powerful low frequency array in Pune.

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Bengaluru: Govind Swarup, who is widely recognised as the ‘father of Indian radio astronomy’, died late Monday at a private hospital in Pune due to age-related health complications. He was 91 years old.

Swarup, who was the founding director of Pune-based National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), made notable contributions to the field of radio astronomy through his career.

He set up the first research groups and equipment in the field in India, discovered ‘type-U’ solar busts, developed the gyro-radiation model for microwave solar emissions, and built the Ooty Radio Telescope and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) array in Pune.

Swarup was awarded the Padma Shri in 1973 for his contributions. He also received the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar prize in 1972, the Khwarizmi International Award in 1999, and the Grote Reber Medal in 2007.

He is survived by his wife, son and daughter.

On Tuesday, President Ram Nath Kovind and the scientific community mourned Swarup’s death, with notable scientists paying their tributes on social media.

Also read: JBS Haldane — British scientist without a science degree who made India his home

Early life and career

According to a Journal of Astronomical History and Heritage profile, Swarup was born on 23 March 1929 in Uttar Pradesh’s Moradabad district, where he completed his matriculation. He then attended the Ewing Christian College in Allahabad (now Prayagraj) for intermediate studies, graduating in 1946. He later got a BSc degree in Physics from the Allahabad University.

In 1950, Swarup joined the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in New Delhi and worked under Sir K.S. Krishnan, co-discoverer of Raman scattering for which C.V. Raman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1930.

With Australia emerging as the leader in the new post-war era radio astronomy, Swarup moved to the island continent in 1953, following Krishnan’s suggestion to get an “apprenticeship” in Australia and return to help set up India’s first radio astronomy programme.

Between 1953 and 1955, he interned at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation’s Division of Radiophysics in Sydney. Among other projects, Swarup worked at the Potts Hill field station with antennae that were mapping the distribution of neutral hydrogen in our galaxy.

Upon his return to NPL in July 1955, Swarup started building and procuring equipment to set up the institute’s radio astronomy programme. Swarup and his peers faced many difficulties, including the lack of cooperation from authorities in transporting dishes from Australia.

A year later, Swarup left the NPL with his wife, Bina, and decided to move to Texas, US. There, at Fort Davis, Harvard University (then Harvard College Observatory), there was a field station for radio astronomy at a site formerly known as Cook Flat.

He joined the PhD programme at Stanford in 1957, where he studied solar emissions. He then joined the faculty of electrical engineering in Stanford, where he simultaneously resumed efforts to set up a radio astronomy programme in India.

Radio astronomy in India

In 1962, Swarup joined a group of radio astronomers under the guidance of eminent physicist Homi Bhabha at TIFR. He returned to India the following year and the group set up India’s first radio telescope two years later.

The solar grating array was located at Kalyan near Mumbai, and consisted of 24 dishes. It came to be known as the Kalyan Radio Telescope. The TIFR radio astronomy group used this telescope to show that the Sun’s corona had a temperature of 1 million degrees.

Swarup also oversaw the construction and completion of the Ooty Radio Telescope (ORT) in 1969, which is still in operation. The design and construction of the telescope was considered to be a great challenge.

In 1976, Swarup began to work on building an upgraded version of the ORT: another radio telescope but four times the size. Two years later, this was formally christened the Giant Equatorial Radio Telescope, and was to be situated at the equator, at a site in Kenya. However, the project fell through in 1982.

Swarup’s pet project then became the GMRT in Pune. It is a synthesis radio telescope with 30 parabolic dishes of 45-m diameter each. It is the world’s largest and most powerful low frequency array, with many countries around the world using the telescope. It was approved in 1987 and became fully operational in 2000.

Swarup’s legacy

Swarup’s TIFR radio astronomy group gained a formidable reputation, even internationally, setting up the popularity of the field within the country. This eventually led to the formation of radio astronomy research groups in institutions like the Raman Research Institute, Indian Institute of Astrophysics, and Physical Research Institute, now famed globally for their radio astronomy programmes.

Swarup was also responsible for the setting up of the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) in Pune and Kolkata in 2005, which came into existence after he made a proposal in this regard along with well known physicist and educationist Professor V.G. Bhide for an integrated programme of intensive science education.

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