Indian-born theoretical physicist Abhay Vasant Ashtekar was awarded the prestigious Einstein prize conferred by the American Physical Society for his “numerous and seminal contributions to general relativity, including the theory of black holes, canonical quantum gravity, and quantum cosmology”. The biennial Einstein prize of $10,000 recognises outstanding accomplishments in the field of gravitational physics. Ashtekar holds many titles at the Pennsylvania State University – physics professor, Evan Pugh Professor, Holder of Eberly Family in Physics, and director of the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos. . He is the founder of loop of quantum gravity – which is based on Ashtekar variables – that aims to merge quantum mechanics with the theory of general relativity postulated by Albert Einstein.
Born in Shirpur, Maharashtra, Ashtekar, 69-year-old, completed his undergraduate studies at the Institute of Science, Mumbai. After receiving his Ph.D. in 1974 from the University of Chicago. Ashtekar went on to hold influential positions in France, Canada and India. His biography on the National Academy of Sciences, to which he was elected a member in 2016, describes him as someone “best known for initiating the Loop Quantum Gravity programme by introducing new variables to simplify Einstein’s equations, for analysing the very early universe using Loop Quantum Cosmology, and for his contributions to the study of the asymptotic structure of space-time and gravitational waves in full non-linear general relativity”.
In an interview to Hindustan times, Ashtekar said that his passion for physical sciences started while he was in high school in India. He got interested in the field of general relativity, cosmology, quantum physics, and gravitational waves because of the mystery behind gravitational waves that act as ripples in the very fabric of space-time and the theoretical tools to identify them, that had created confusion for several decades on the basic question of the physical reality of gravitational waves.
Reacting to the Indian governments approval of a new textbook on inventions and discoveries of ancient India for an elective course called ancient knowledge system for engineering students, he said that, with portrayal of such a system as an alternative to a well-established science, we would be embarking on a dangerous path that can only lead to disaster in time. It would be like considering the `creationism’, based on a literal interpretation of Bible used in some conservative Christian circles, as an alternative to Darwin. In Germany under Hitler, in China under Mao, and in the Soviet Union under Stalin, politics interfered with science, rejecting some well-founded, deep ideas in physics and biology and would set countries behind for decades, he warned.
On being asked whether physicists in India are producing world-class research, Ashtekar said: “There are extremely talented physicists in India who are making first-rate contributions to pure physics in areas I have first-hand acquaintance with. I am particularly pleased by the ‘LIGO-India’ project that is now placing India firmly in the front ranks of international efforts. The Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, in particular, will play an important role in the major discoveries that will be made with the international network of gravitational wave observatories between 5 and 10 years from now. In this area India is ahead of China, for example.”