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Meet the Indian astrophysicists who discovered the Saraswati Supercluster

Among the major challenges in working in this field in India is the lack of large-scale experimental facilities for scientists.

, ET Bureau|
Jul 23, 2017, 12.01 AM IST
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(L-R) Somak Raychaudhury, Joydeep Bagchi and PhD student Shishir Sankhyayan
(L-R) Somak Raychaudhury, Joydeep Bagchi and PhD student Shishir Sankhyayan
Early this week, social networking sites were abuzz with politicians and celebrities — from West Bengal CM Mamata Banerjee to Bollywood actor Sonam Kapoor — congratulating a team of Indian astronomers and astrophysicists. Reason: They had discovered one of the largest known structures in the universe — a supercluster of galaxies stretching across 600 million light years.

Perhaps never before had national pride been evoked in the recent past for such a landmark breakthrough. And that’s encouraging for Somak Raychaudhury, director of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics (IUCAA) in Pune, the institution which, along with the Indian Institute of Science Education & Research and two other universities, spearheaded the project. “It builds confidence in Indians when global scientific journals and newspapers recognise our achievements. And it is likely to translate into more parents sending their kids to take up science education,” says Raychaudhury.



The Oxford and Cambridge educated Raychaudhury, who has held prestigious positions at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics among many, made the journey back to India in 2012 to take over at the helm of the physics department of Kolkata’s Presidency University (from where he had graduated). Beyond that role, Raychaudhury was keen that Indian science and scientists make it to the big league. He was concerned that India, which has a young population, was not tapping the next generation of scientists at its universities.

“In India, internationally competitive research occurs almost exclusively in the research institutes, whereas universities are becoming training centres for students. This is not true elsewhere in the world; universities teach but also conduct leading research. It is important for our young people to witness and participate in world-class research from a young age,” Raychaudhury told ET Magazine from IUCCA.

India’s Space Odyssey
The discovery of Saraswati is significant for Raychaudhury, who joined IUCCA as director two years back. “This is an example of an Indian team making use of a publicly available data archive from an international facility (Sloan Digital Sky Survey and other US observatories), making a discovery, following it up with data proposed for and obtained in open competition using other international observatories (like the Chandra and XMM-Newton x-ray observatories in space).”


Among the major challenges in working in this field in India is the lack of large-scale experimental facilities for scientists. “The largest Indian telescopes are very limited compared to those available worldwide, and we have to compete globally to use these facilities.” IUCAA is part of major global research collaborations such as the IndIGO Consortium, Sloan Digital Sky Survey and the Thirty Meter Telescope project.

Joydeep Bagchi, lead author of the Saraswati Supercluster paper and associate professor at IUCAA, feels that the project has demonstrated the expertise of Indian researchers, particularly those at IUCAA. “India has already become a world leader in the field of radio astronomy with the successful operation of the 100% indigenous Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope (GMRT) near Pune, which is currently the world’s largest and most powerful radio telescope in meter wavelength range. Moreover, with the highly successful Mars Orbital Mission, Indian space scientists have demonstrated to the world that they can execute extremely complex and precise space missions at much lower costs than advanced nations.”

For Shishir Sankhyayan, co-author in the research paper, the main challenge was analysis of the data and refining it. “While India has cutting edge facilities in major research institutes, improvement in the environment research and facilities in some of the universities is still required.” His plans include exploring the Saraswati Supercluster in details and searching for more superclusters, if they exist, in our universe.

No surprise that the scientific community in India is excited over the discovery. Patrick Das Gupta, professor, department of physics & astrophysics, University of Delhi, reckons that this is significant for testing the big bang model. “This supercluster is being seen in a state as it was about 4 billion years ago, since light has a finite speed.”

Jasjit Singh Bagla, professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, feels that the fact that the entire team is based in India makes this paper an important milestone in the country’s journey in astronomy. “It demonstrates that we have the skills for an elaborate analysis required to establish the existence of the supercluster in a quantitative manner.” “India has a great, rich, and distinguished heritage in physics, astronomy and astrophysics.

The recent announcement of the discovery of the Saraswati Supercluster of galaxies continues this strong trend,” says Australian-British astrophysicist Kevin A Pimbblet, who is currently based at the EA Milne Centre for Astrophysics in Hull, UK. The choice of an Indian name for the project — Saraswati — has been a hit. “Several years ago, when we had identified this large serpentine structure of galaxies that we were sure was bigger than anything we had ever seen, we thought of it as a river of galaxies.

We also wanted to suggest an Indian name,” Raychaudhury says. The metaphor is not new — the Milky Way, after all, is often called a river of stars.
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