Prof. Govind Swarup (23 March 1929 - 07 September 2020)
It is with deep sadness that we share the news of the passing away of one of ASI’s founding members, Professor Govind Swarup. A global pioneer in radio astronomy, and a torch-bearer for building scientific capacity in independent India, Prof. Swarup passed away in Pune on 7 September 2020 after a short illness. He is widely regarded as the person responsible for making India one of the world's leading countries in radio astronomy research.
Prof. Swarup was born in Thakurdwara, now in the state of Uttar Pradesh on 23 March 1929. He obtained his undergraduate education at Allahabad University and then joined the National Physical Laboratory in Delhi. After a stint in Australia building telescopes at Pott's Hill near Sydney, Prof. Swarup moved to the USA where he obtained a PhD from Stanford University. At the back of his mind, always, was the thought to return to India to establish the newly emerging field of radio astronomy. The opportunity soon came from the visionary scientist Homi Bhabha, who offered Swarup and some of his colleagues faculty positions at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai.
Upon his return to India in 1963, Swarup was driven by the quest to answer some of the most important questions in astronomy as well as a deep urge to develop indigenous capacity for science and technology. Thus was born the Ooty Radio Telescope in Tamilnadu in 1970. A very clever design leading to a behemoth that was the world’s largest radio telescope of its time! Swarup took the young engineers and astronomers that joined him and trained and mentored them over many years into a team of expert radio telescope designers, builders and scientists. This team went on to conceptualise and lead the construction of the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) near Pune, a part of the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics of TIFR. Built during the 1990s, the GMRT once again made India the home of the world’s largest telescope at low radio frequencies. It is a testament to his audacity that 50 years later, the Ooty Radio Telescope is still the world’s largest steerable telescope. A massively upgraded GMRT (uGMRT) was formally inaugurated on Prof. Swarup’s 90th birthday in 2019, and is currently the most sensitive telescope in the world in its frequency range of operation. His passion to develop capacity and capability in the country for science and technology was not limited to the radio band, but extended beyond it as well.
Swarup's ability to think big and to pursue his passion without being deterred by the technical and financial difficulties in his path made him a torch-bearer of scientific research in India. His unflagging energy and enthusiasm attracted a large number of scientists and engineers to his team. He combined engineering expertise with in-depth astronomical knowledge, quite a rare combination in one man. Over the last 57 years, he trained many generations of engineers and scientists in India and established India as one of the world's leading countries in all aspects of radio astronomy research. After his retirement in 1994, he turned his attention to trying to improve the quality of science education in India and creating opportunities for keen students to pursue a career in science. He played a crucial role in conceptualising the setting up of Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs), for providing a 5-year science education course, after completing the 12th year of school education. There are now seven IISERs across India.
Prof. Swarup received many national and international honours throughout his career. The most noteworthy amongst these are the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar award (1972), the Padma Shri (1973), the Dellinger Gold Medal of URSI (1990), the Herschel Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (2005), and the Grote Reber award (2007). Prof. Swarup also played a very active role in the Indian and global astronomy community. He was the second president of the Astronomical Society of India (1975-1976), served as the President, Commission 40 of the International Astronomical Union (1979-82) and the Indian National Committee for International Union of Radio Science (URSI) (1986–88 & 1995–97). These awards and accolades are but a limited and incomplete measure of his accomplishments and persona. To quote from a 2015 Current Science article by Prof. G. Srinivasan “There is no doubt in my mind that posterity will credit Govind Swarup with greatly influencing Indian astronomy. During the past five decades, he has always been highly original in his thinking, and has always ‘thought big’ – as Bhabha had advised him. Every one of his new initiatives was something that was out of the ordinary, novel and challenging. This invariably touched the chord of brilliant young students of science and engineering. That he has been able to inspire several generations of scientists and engineers – from 1963 till now! – is amazing. In this sense, his accomplishments transcend the conventional way to assess a scientist, namely their personal research contributions.”
He is survived by his wife Bina, son Vipin and daughter Anju and their families.
For those who wish, we invite you to contribute to the “Memories and Memorial” page which has been set up to gather the tributes, anecdotes, photographs, videos etc. from a grateful community.