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Prof. C. V. Vishveshwara – The star of Bengaluru’s planetarium, a pioneer in black hole research and an exemplary science communicator

  • Prof. C. V. Vishveshwara, Photo Courtesy: ICTS
    Prof. C. V. Vishveshwara, Photo Courtesy: ICTS

Photo Courtesy : International Centre for Theoretical Sciences, Bengaluru

Remembering Prof. C V Vishveshwara on his 79th birth anniversary

If you have ever visited the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium (JNP) in Bengaluru, you are sure to be mesmerized by the art of story telling in the recorded videos played during the shows and the cartoons on display. If there is one person that has to be credited to introducing this uniqueness to the planetarium, it is definitely Prof. C V Vishveshwara, famously called the ‘black hole man of India’.

Born in Bengaluru on the 6th of March 1938, Prof. C V Vishveshwara graduated with a M.Sc. degree in physics from the Mysore University and earned his Ph.D. from the University of Maryland under the supervision of Charles W. Misner, a renowned expert on general relativity. After spending a few more years pursuing his postdoctoral research at various universities across the world, he returned to India in 1976.

Prof. C V Vishveshwara worked as a Professor at the Raman Research Institute (RRI) and then moved to the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) from where he retired in 1998. Yet, retirement did not stop him from working towards his passion – communicating science. He continued to teach and served at JNP till the end. He passed away on the 16th of January 2017, leaving behind a legacy. On his 79th birth anniversary, here is a portrayal of the man who excelled professionally as physicist and a science communicator.

Prof. C V Vishweshwara – The Physicist

If the words ‘black hole’ brings Stephen Hawking, famous for his research and books on black holes, or John Wheeler, who coined the team ‘black hole’, to your mind, then think again! Prof. C V Vishveshwara’s seminal research on black holes started much before black holes were even named or detected. He had mathematically demonstrated that (non-rotating) black holes are stable, and therefore can continue to exist in the real Universe, if formed.

Black holes are celestial objects with such immense gravity that nothing can escape from them -- not even light! The 20st century was a golden era in astrophysics with Einstein’s general relativity opening up the mysteries of the Universe. Karl Schwarzschild proposed a mathematical solution to Einstein’s equations of general relativity and predicted the existence of objects that are now called ‘black holes’. However, it was unknown how such an object would behave when disturbed by in falling matter or radiation until Prof. C V Vishveshwara’s research.

“Vishu’s (Prof. C V Vishveshwara’s) work on quasi normal modes – characteristic emissions when black holes are disturbed - is fundamental to our understanding of black holes and how we need to understand them”, remarked Prof. Bala Iyer, retired Professor at the Raman Research Institute and Visiting Scholar at the International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS), in a recently held program called “Remembering C V Vishveshwara”, organized by ICTS, as a tribute to this great scientist.

Prof. Bala Iyer has worked extensively and very closely with Prof C V Vishveshwara during their days together at the Raman Research Institute. “It was always a pleasure working with Vishu, there was no generation gap and there was an easy rapport. We have co-edited many volumes of scientific journals. His sense of humour provided a warm and friendly environment for all around him”, reminisced Prof. Iyer in his talk.

As a forerunner in his area of research, Prof. C V Vishveshwara encouraged the growth of relativity research in India. He started many UGC (University Grant Commission) schools on general relativity in the 1980s. He also set up the International Conference on Gravitational Cosmology (ICGC), a series of meetings to create an opportunity for Indian relativists to interact with international experts in the field.

Prof. C V Vishveshwara – The Science Communicator

As the Founding Director of the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, Prof. C V Vishveshwara introduced several science popularization and science education programmes through non-formal methods. “His contributions, which cannot be described in handful of sentences, gains importance because of the time and context when it was started”, says Dr. B S Shylaja, Director of the Jawaharlal Nehru Planetarium, Bangalore. “For the first time in the history of planetariums in the country, he introduced recorded shows and added a local touch to it with artworks, music and mythological stories”, she adds. “All these elements have made JNP a unique place for dissemination of science, attracting and nurturing talented and highly motivated students to pursue a career in research”, says Mr. H R Madhusudan, Senior Scientific Officer at JNP.

Prof. C V Vishveshawara had been envisioning the role of the planetarium, as it is being seen today, right from its inception and provided a distinct direction to the philosophy of making planetarium shows. He put his heart and soul in making it truly world class with a handful of people who had absolutely no idea about a planetarium and were least exposed in astronomy. “He had several hurdles to cross and did it with pursuance to get JNP the title of unique planetarium”, says Dr. Shailaja.

As a testimony to Prof. C V Vishveshwara’s pursuance, Mr. Madhusudhan recollects an incident that he can never forget - “In the year 1999-2000, we had just two students attending the weekend course in physics, raising concerns about continuing the programme. That is when he would quote from Nobel Laureate S. Chandrashekhar's life, where Prof. Chandrashekhar would drive a couple of hundred miles to teach a class of two students. And, when the two students won the Nobel Prize, Chandra would tell everyone that his entire class had won the Nobel! This was to underline the importance of quality of students that we need to invest our time in, as against the number.” And what happened with the two students? “One of them is an active researcher today at ICTS”, exclaims Mr. Madhusudhan.  “The programme has, since then, produced close to fifty students who have completed their PhDs”, he adds proudly.

Prof. C V Vishveshwara’s quest to take science to amateurs did not stop at that. He has authored various books, scientific volumes and popular science articles. His talks at the Bangalore Science Forum always attracted a full-house audience from all walks of life. A firm believer of the fact that science should influence society, he started a forum to seriously discuss social impacts of science and technology, which impressed Nobel Laureate Dr. S Chandrashekar during his visit to Bangalore.

Interacting with laypersons, especially students, was very close to Prof. C V Vishveshwara’s heart. “He firmly believed that nothing could be achieved by one day workshops or one lecture, and wanted a continuous interaction that included problem solving sessions, hands on activities and demonstrations”, says Dr. Shylaja. “When we started the year-long programs on astronomy over weekends, the planetarium itself was used as a laboratory! The "students" of this courses included teachers, aerospace engineers from the Navy, dentists and even astrologers”, she recollects.

Prof. C V Vishveshwara initiated a rigorous training program in physics for students through the Research Education Advancement Programme in Physical Sciences (REAP) program, where they were taught by practicing scientists in the field. “It is highly inspiring for students to be taught by great researchers in such programs”, says Mr. Madhusudhan. “A researcher's approach to the subject is quite different from that of one who is not into research. So, the students find these classes very insightful, which is something that formal classes usually do not provide”, he adds. Many of the students are now prominent scientists in the country.

Prof. C V Vishveshwara – The Cartoonist

Prof. C V Vishveshwara’s novel ability in communicating science comes from his much-acclaimed cartoons. He was probably the first to show that mathematical equations can be translated into different forms of art  - humour, caricature and cartoons. “The first glimpse of the cartoonist in him was seen at the first ICGC conference when anonymous cartoons would appear on screen between sessions, which enthralled the attendees. By the end of the conference, there were multiple reprint request for these cartoons”, recalled Prof. Iyer during his talk at the ICTS programme.

One of Prof. C V Vishveshwara’s books, “Einstein's Enigma or Black Holes in My Bubble Bath”, known for its brevity in explaining general relativity, is also famous for its cartoons and illustrations. The cartoons that adore the planetarium talks are no less. “His cartoons were a great attraction at JNP and people remember them even today”, recalls Dr. Shylaja.

The legacy he leaves behind

Prof. C V Vishveshwara’s life is an inspiration to many – his enthusiasm to take science to every household, his perseverance in making science an attractive career option and his dedication towards teaching are some of the legacies the great man leaves behind. “It is heartening to note that students who attended the courses at the planetarium, are now placed in several prestigious research institutes and some of them have opted teaching – like Prof. C V Vishveshwara”, says Dr. Shylaja. “Almost all of them, even to this day, fondly remember the interactions with scientists during their student days at the planetarium”, she adds. While there is a societal obligation for scientists to give back to society, the directions showed by Prof. C V Vishveshwara in enabling this, is second to none.

Prof. C V Vishveshwara, or ‘Vishu’, as he is fondly called, left behind a trail that a very few can walk on. While the science community definitely misses his presence, his works, words and actions will stay in spirits for generations to come.