On 11th February 2016, physicists announced the first ever direct observation of gravitational waves, propagating distortions of the fabric of space and time that travel billions of light years. The discovery set the scientific world abuzz and was regarded as the final proof for Einstein’s theory of gravity – general relativity.
One man who remained stoic yet smiling amidst all the jubilation was the late Prof. Vishveshwara. A pioneer of black hole physics, Prof. C.V. Vishveshwara in 1970, as part of his PhD thesis showed how a black hole perturbed by incoming gravitational radiation emits the radiation back in a characteristic pattern not dissimilar to how a struck bell, irrespective of what is was struck by, always produces the same sound.
These characteristic forms, called quasi normal-modes, were observed during the famous detection of February 2016 and were found to be perfectly consistent with Prof. Vishveshwara’s findings, a stunning vindication of work done at a time when physicists remained largely sceptical of the existence of a black hole.
Prof. Vishveshwara passed away on 16th January, 2017, leaving a gaping hole in the Indian science community. He was an inspiration to a generation of physicists, in India and abroad. He was also known for his cartoons, drawings and “bed-time stories” that made complex physics accessible to the interested layman with chuckle-worthy titles such as “Einstein’s Enigma or bubbles in my bath”.
Ever ready with witty lines usually delivered with a characteristic poker face, Prof. Vishveshwara was well loved by his students and lecture audiences around the world. Prof. Tarun Souradeep, a student and friend recalls ‘Vishu’ once inviting a student for a cup of tea just before her thesis presentation, gently prodding her for the details of her project and at the end proclaiming that her thesis defence had just ended, to his student’s surprise and joy.
Perhaps his greatest legacy will be as the founder-director of the Nehru Planetarium at Bengaluru that to this day draws large crowds and inspires the young generation to gaze at the sky and wonder. He played an active role in its establishment and has written several programmes for it.
“He had very strong technical skills and possessed great insight into physics,” recounts his once-PhD student, Prof. Rajesh Nayak. “He spoke about physics all the time. Even In his old-age he continued to speak only about black holes.”
Prof. Vishveshwara spent a large majority of his active research career in Bengaluru at the Raman Research Institute and the Indian Insitute of Astrophysics. While revered in the gravity and physics community around the world, Prof. Vishveshwara was not as well known in his home country as he should have been, perhaps owing to his shy disposition, always shirking the limelight, or the lack of accessibility to science for the general population.
The world and India is much poorer for losing a colossus of science and a pioneer researcher.
By Lokahith Agasthya, BS-MS Student, IISER Pune
The “Beyond the Campus” category on the IISER Pune news blog publishes articles on topics outside the IISER Pune campus that are of broad interest to the scientific community. Views expressed here are that of the authors.