Karan Jani was part of the team that discovered the universe’s gravitational waves in 2015, a century after Albert Einstein predicted them.
Bengaluru: Karan Jani studied at a school with no science lab. Today, he is a renowned scientist who was part of a historic discovery three years ago that launched a new field of science.
Jani was part of a worldwide network of academic teams, including from India, at Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) that was the first to detect gravitational waves. The feat, which was the culmination of a decade of efforts, won the team the Nobel Prize in 2017 and the Special Breakthrough Prize in Physics in 2016.
This scientist’s journey is one budding scientists around the country can identify with. One of the most prominent voices of Indian science online and offline today, Jani tours the country giving lectures. But getting there involved bucking the rat race, as well as advice from seniors to go for an MBA even though he was pursuing a bachelor’s in physics.
Knowing Sarabhai, discovering Hawking
Jani attended a government school in Baroda, Gujarat, where education was subsidised. “We didn’t have science labs. Our library was (a room of) tables and chairs where we all went to play ‘book-cricket’,” Jani told ThePrint.
Growing up, there were no science idols to look up to. The only name he probably heard, he said, was Vikram Sarabhai. This was likely because the father of India’s space programme was from Ahmedabad, Baroda’s neighbouring city.
Jani subsequently joined Maharaja Sayajirao University, a public institution in Baroda, for an undergraduate degree in physics. He wasn’t sure about his career, but was confused why seniors were advising him to appear for the Common Admission Test for entry to the Indian Institutes of Management.
One day, as he was wandering outside his college, he picked up Stephen Hawking’s iconic A Brief History of Time from a street-side book vendor. He was hooked from Page 1, and it was like a new world had opened up for him.
“Until I read the book, facts were always presented as a fact with no context or explanation to convince you of it,” he said. “But that book floored me and changed my entire outlook.”
He then set about approaching universities around the world with queries about their undergraduate astronomy programs. Penn State, US, unexpectedly responded, encouraging him to apply for a transfer there. Everything worked out, and Jani left for Pennsylvania after his first year for a B.S. in astronomy and astrophysics.
It was here that he got interested in general relativity, and obtained a simultaneous undergraduate degree in physics with a minor in mathematics.
It was during his undergraduate studies that he got the opportunity to meet Hawking, when he was a visiting scholar at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. At this ‘Comic Con for physics’, seeing Hawking was a routine affair. Eventually, Hawking invited Jani and other undergraduate students for a lunchtime interaction.
A few years later, Hawking would be a part of the committee that decided to give Jani and his team the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for the LIGO discovery.
Among his other inspirations, Jani names astrophysicist Rainer Weiss, who led the LIGO team, and theoretical physicist Abhay Ashtekar. “It is a fantastic feeling when your idols go on to become your colleagues and you can see them at work,” he said.
Jani went on to do his PhD at Georgia Tech University, writing his thesis on binary black holes. “When I started my PhD, binary black holes, where two black holes orbit each other, were still hypothetical,” said Jani.
During his PhD, Jani worked a fair amount with LIGO, simulating and modelling findings the detector could make. He subsequently joined the observatory as a resident fellow.
LIGO and beyond
Jani was at a US airport when he got the text informing him that LIGO had detected gravitational waves. Back-of-the-envelope calculations blew Jani away. “It was not the fact that these were real gravitational waves, but that the source black holes were massive,” he said, “I had never seen anything of this scale before.”
The actual independent confirmations went on for several days, and the time leading up to the press announcement simmered with excitement. “This was the culmination of my work, my colleagues’, and so many of my superiors’, who had been working on this all their adult lives,” he said, likening the discovery to the time humans landed on moon.
“It was an emotional moment when I saw tweets from (former US president Barack) Obama and (PM Narendra) Modi congratulating us,” he said.
“When I told my parents to watch the press conference, I was thinking of exactly the right circumstances that prompted me to pick up the book by Hawking in Baroda,” he told ThePrint.
From then on, the excitement in Jani’s home state spiked with every subsequent discovery made by LIGO.
The idea to tour Indian colleges came as Jani and his colleagues were invited to meet Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“He encouraged us to go visit as many colleges and universities as we could in India and talk about science and LIGO-India,” Jain said.
LIGO-India, a gravitational-wave observatory to be set up in the country as part of a worldwide network, is likely to be commissioned by 2024.
Two of his favourite speaking gigs involved an interaction with the differently abled in Gujarat, and an address at the Forbes Global Summit alongside theoretical physicist Lisa Randall, Nobel peace laureate Malala Yousafzai, and entrepreneur Richard Branson.
A call to boost research
On his college tours, Jani specifically picks public institutes because “that’s where I would be had I stayed in India”.
Students in India aren’t exposed to a lot of open problems in their fields because of lack of research in their institute or by their professors, and that is something he hopes changes. He especially wishes Indian undergraduate research becomes a norm, just like lab courses are.
“Unless you have a problem in front of you that you are aiming to solve, there really isn’t much difference between, say a BSc Physics and an MSc Physics,” he added.
He recalled a tidbit from his own academic life to stress the need for more conferences for students where they can interact with the stalwarts of academia.
Attending a conference for undergraduate physics students at Fermilab, the iconic particle physics and accelerator laboratory in the US, was one of the best experiences of his life, he said.
“It was absolutely incredible that the people who worked there interacted with us, undergraduate students,” he added, “Leon Lederman, a particle physics Nobel laureate, attended our poster sessions and asked us questions when we were presenting.”
The India picture
Jani is now focussed on the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), which will measure gravitational waves from space and is due for a 2034 launch. He also serves as an education policy adviser for the Gujarat government.
LIGO-India is also big in his field of vision.
“LIGO-India is a very important, landmark scientific project for India because this is a field that has just been born and it is important for our country to train the next generation of scientists,” he said.
“Scientists who work on LIGO-India will also work on LISA, and when LISA flies, we will have a wealth of resources ready to lead gravitational-wave astronomy,” he added.
Gravitational-wave astronomy has just seen its break of day, and many like Jani are hopeful that it will help us solve some deep mysteries about space, for example, what happened in the few zillionths of a second immediately after the Big Bang.
Jani also focuses on science communication online, being a firm proponent of its importance in an age of rampant pseudoscience and misinformation.
“Pseudoscience from members of the public can be pardoned, with the hope that the next generation of students is able to successfully counter it and stomp it out,” he said.
“But when it comes from policy-makers and politicians, it becomes a matter of concern,” he added.
“Unfortunately, everyone, whether a politician or a troll, is a product of our system, and that is an example of how our system fails our citizens,” Jani said. “Sadly, the burden of fixing this problem lies on our future generations, which we can hopefully steer in the right direction.”
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