A brief history of the universe, through a teen’s eyes

DECCAN CHRONICLE. | DARSHANA RAMDEV
Published Jan 28, 2017, 3:10 am IST
Updated Jan 28, 2017, 6:28 am IST
By the time he was a teenager, Karun had become a deep repository of knowledge himself.
Karun Divij Balachandar at his Bengaluru home. (Photo: Shashidhar B.)
 Karun Divij Balachandar at his Bengaluru home. (Photo: Shashidhar B.)

At the age of 16, as his peers grapple with their future, Karun Balachandar is a published author. He talks to darshana ramdev about his book, The Teenager’s Guide to the Universe, which attempts to decode the mysteries of cosmology into language that will capture even the fleeting attention span of a 13-year-old!

"If you can't explain it to a six year old, you don't understand it yourself," said Albert Einstein. He’s right, of course, but how does one explain the mathematics of a wormhole to a child? Karun Divij Balachandar, a veritable powerhouse at the tender age of 16, has taken it upon himself to do just this. His book, The Teenager's Guide to the Universe has already hit major bookstores and online platforms across the country, attempts to explain the origins of the universe, multiverses, black holes and wormholes and the search for extraterrestrial intelligence in language his friends will understand.

 

"My interest in space and cosmology began when I was very young," said Karun. By the age of six, he was spending his weekends at the Chabot Space Centre in Oakland, poring through the treasury of knowledge it housed. "I soon found that all the most interesting information was contained in the most complex books," he explained. He would run to the city library whenever he had a moment to spare, picking up books that he would read and re-read, even learning interesting facts by rote. "I was ten years old when I first came across the Drake Equation. I learned at that point that there about four billion planets in Milky Way alone that could contain intelligent life!" he said. The logic came easily enough, although his father chipped in whenever he could, helping Karun decode equations that were simply beyond the grasp of a child.

By the time he was a teenager, Karun had become a deep repository of knowledge himself. His grandfather, whom he refers to with great affection as Jayu Thaatha, introduced him to the man who would go on to become his friend and mentor. Dr Devi Prasad Duari, the director of the MP Birla Planetarium in Kolkata, who decided to indulge the passion of an enthusiastic teenager, found himself overawed by Karun's abilities. "He said to me one day: 'You have a very specific way of being able to describe the most complex things in layman's terms. Why don't you write a book'?"

His first response was one of disbelief, but the idea appealed to him. The book, which contains 14 chapters, took about six months to complete. "One publisher held on to it for over a year, which was good for me, because I continued adding to it during that time,"  Karun remarked. "It was a challenge trying to turn some of the most interesting facts I knew into teen language. How do you explain Schrodinger's Cat to a 13-year-old? It was well-received, though. Dr Duari liked it so much he agreed to write the foreword."

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Karun talks for about an hour, explaining with great enthusiasm his interests: cosmology and mythology. The latter is the subject of his next book, which Karun hopes to write in 2018. "My grandfather sparked my interest in Indian mythology when I was about five years old," he recalled. From there, he trawled through Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Celtic, Mayan myths - "I want to compile the most interesting stories I have come across, which aren’t very well-known," he said. He now spends his weekends at home in Jakkur conducting classes on mythology for the kids in the neighbourhood.

Being a prodigy is a full-time job, one that Karun handles with aplomb. A trained Carnatic musician, he manages to stay at the top of his class in school, too. “He topped the ICSE exams in school last year,” his mother adds proudly, in an aside. Even so, nurturing a passion so great requires tremendous dedication, which Karun is happy to do.

"Every moment I have is spent on research," said Karun, who is also working toward his dream of being a doctor. "Studying for medical school is no easy task, but I seem to be handling it pretty well!"

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