‘I triggered Hawking’s interest in space’

Deccan Chronicle.  | B.R. SRIKANTH

Nation, Current Affairs

Dr Narlikar and Prof Joshi were very friendly with Dr Hawking and could even influence his thinking on some aspects of cosmology.

Prof Pankaj Joshi Dr. Jayant Narlikar

Bengaluru: Dr Stephen Hawking, the genius who dedicated his life to unlocking secrets of the universe, had many friends among Indian scientists: Renowned astrophysicist Dr Jayant Vishnu Narlikar, Prof Pankaj S Joshi of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, and Dr Somak Raychaudhury, Director, Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, and the cosmologist's student, to name a few.

And at least two of them: Dr Narlikar and Prof Joshi were very friendly with Dr Hawking and could even influence his thinking on some aspects of cosmology. Dr Narlikar knew Dr Hawking since early 1960s when both were students in Cambridge University, and attended the summer school of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. "He was fit and fine and used to set off on long walks. He was also a good table tennis player. We played against each other in the finals of a table tennis tournament held for students at the summer school, and I beat him in a best-of-five sets game," Dr Narlikar reminisced in an interview to Deccan Chronicle.Their summer school bonding was not a one-off episode. A couple of years later, Dr Narlikar said he was asked to step in as Dr Hawking's supervisor after British physicist Dr Dennis Sciama, who was holding the post, headed for the United States for three months.

"We kept in touch after I returned to India, and he used to pass messages to me through common friends because of his poor health. Once he sent word that his interest in cosmology increased because of my work. His health deteriorated over the years, but he did not give up, and evinced interest in travel to outer space and exploration using space technology," he added.

As for Prof Pankaj Joshi, who considers Dr Hawking his "Guru," they bonded after the latter invited the former with a year-long fellowship to Cambridge University in early 1980s. "We used to go to the cafeteria on campus for lunch, and he used to talk for about an hour and half about cosmology. His speech was blurred, but his mind was always sharp, and he had the ability to grasp any subject without even a pause. He believed that massive stars collapse due to their gravity and turn into Black Holes, but other groups felt that such stars could also explode as gigantic fire balls, a phenomenon known as 'naked singularity.' I have published many manuscripts on this phenomenon and he eventually accepted that gigantic stars, perhaps 20 times larger than the sun, could explode into a fireball and not end up as black holes. He attended a seminar where I spoke about my work on 'naked singularity,' asked me many questions about my theory, and was convinced with my explanation," he added.

Prof Joshi reminisced about Dr Hawking's visit to TIFR, Mumbai, in 2001, and how he broke into a dance, with the help of his wheelchair, at a banquet hosted at Trident Hotel during the visit. "Last week, he attended conference on Quantum Cosmology, where theories were put forth that the universe has no boundaries. He was an extremely dynamic person, and so was interested in a variety of issues," he told Deccan Chronicle.

Dr Somak Raychaudhury, who was Dr Hawking's student in University of Cambridge, everyone knew about the astrophysicist because of his ability to  carry on with research against all odds and wheel-chair bound till he breathed his last at 76. "That is the human spirit. You think about human spirit, and you think about Dr Stephen Hawking, In spite of his affliction, he carried on popularising science through his books and lectures. Confined to the wheelchair and given two years to live at the age of twenty, and yet, look at the way he took on the world in all these spheres," he added.