The professor who loved puzzles and had his own physics comic


Thanu Padmanabhan had acquired exceptional mathematical abilities quite early in his life, thanks to the guidance of his father who was an extremely gifted mathematician but was forced to take a job in the Kerala Forestry Department.

Padmanabhan had decided to pursue an academic career in pure mathematics. But that was before he picked up the classic Lectures in Physics by Richard Feynman, the book that has drawn countless young people like him from across generations to physics. In a profile included in the book Gravity and the Quantum, a collection of articles by Padmanabhan published on the occasion of his 60th birthday, his doctoral students Jasjit Bagla and Sunu Engineer wrote that Feynman’s book had a great influence on himself. if he wasn’t a big fan of the famous scientist as a person. “It occurred to me that theoretical physics beautifully combines the best of objective science with the elegance of pure mathematics”, Padmanabhan, died in Pune on Friday, 64, is cited in this profile as saying.

Padmanabhan, or Paddy as his colleagues and students called him, reached great heights in theoretical physics, making important contributions to the fields of gravity and quantum theory, and the structure and formation of the universe.

His first work was carried out at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, where he did his doctorate under the supervision of Jayant Narlikar,
found an association that has lasted a lifetime. Padmanabhan moved to the Interuniversity Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune in 1992 and remained there until his death, doing research, teaching and popularizing science.

“As a teacher, he could explain any subject or topic to a student with great ease. He taught me that discipline and hard work, when combined, would ensure that one continues to grow, ”said Dr Tirthankar Roy Choudhury, Padmanabhan PhD student between 1999 and 2003 at IUCAA.

Its disappearance was a shock for the scientific community, in particular that of the IUCAA. Many of them came to pay their last
respects on Friday afternoon. He was then cremated in Aundh.

Padmanabhan could teach any physics and astronomy course with equal ease, said Dr Yogesh Wadedekar, senior scientist at the National Center for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) in Pune.

Padmanabhan enjoyed solving puzzles, playing chess and watching movies of all kinds.

“There was a period when he watched a lot of movies on television. Some of us students criticized her for her taste for actress Tabu. He would throw a party for us every time he won an award or recognition, of which there were many.

Every time we went out for dinner he would order tiramisu for dessert and we still didn’t care about that habit, ”said AN Ramaprakash, scientist and colleague at IUCAA.

“He often played chess on the computer. He was a perceptive thinker and would be the watcher of problems, ”recalled Sanjit Mitra, another colleague at IUCAA.

Many have never had the chance to meet their idols in life, but Tirthankar Roy Choudhury not only worked closely together, but remained associated with his idol for almost 20 years. “When I was chosen under his supervision for a doctorate, it was like a dream come true
true. He never stopped or was never tired and often tackled new and more difficult problems, ”recalls Choudhury.

Padmanabhan was an outstanding scientist who could quickly grasp a scientific argument while admitting if he did not have any knowledge on the subject, said Professor Yashwant Gupta, director of the center, NCRA.

Through his work over the past decade, Padmanabhan had discovered a deep connection between the underlying quantum nature of the structure of spacetime and what we perceive to be the macro properties of gravity, Ramaprakash said. “It’s pioneering and innovative. He was just beginning to understand the consequences of this discovery, but had to leave, ”he said.

Mitra in particular remembers the long conversations he had with Padmanabhan, when the two passed each other on their respective night walks.

“We would talk about any topic and often end up having interesting discussions that lasted even up to 45 minutes during evening walks,” he said.

While scientific research was a daily affair, Padmanabhan also took to writing books – both on advanced and popular sciences – in the early 1990s, and quickly realized the need for a personal computer in his home. .

Roy Choudhury remembers the spiritual nature of Padmanabhan and said some people wouldn’t understand the light humor. When he was given the responsibility of teaching many years ago, Padmanabhan guided Roy Choudhury from time to time.

Padmanabhan’s comic strip titled The Story of Physics was both popular and loved by students, explained Dr Raka Dabhade, head of the physics department at Fergusson College. “His humble nature has always attracted students to interact with him. Despite his busy schedule, he found time to allay students’ doubts via email, ”said Dabhade.

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