By Prarthana Mitra
Indian-American professor Abhay Ashtekar has been awared the coveted Einstein Prize conferred by the American Physical Society (APS) for “numerous and seminal contributions to general relativity, including the theory of black holes, canonical quantum gravity, and quantum cosmology.”
Ashtekar will be awarded $10,000 during the felicitation scheduled to take place on October 23.
About the winner
Besides teaching physics at Pennsylvania State University, he is also the Evan Pugh Professor, Holder, Eberly Chair, and director of the Institute for Gravitation and the Cosmos at the university.
Having received his doctorate from the University of Chicago, Ashtekar soon became a renowned figure in France, Canada and India. The National Academy of Sciences credits him “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”.
“The prize is special because is it the highest honour bestowed by APS in the broad area of gravitational science,” Ashtekar told IANS in an email interview.
Relating his passion for the physical sciences, he spoke about how he was exposed to Newton’s laws and universality of gravity in high school, and about “what makes the apple fall on earth also makes the planets go around the sun. This was stunning by itself,” he said. “It was striking to me that the same Newton’s laws are taught and admired in India as in China, Japan and the West,” he added.
He was also deeply intrigued by how Newton’s laws transcend art and literature, which are “so tied to human conditions.”
“Later, in college, fundamental physics seemed to me to be the deepest and purest way to pursue understanding of Nature (the external world). In graduate school, I chose to work in general relativity, cosmology and quantum physics because that is where the most fundamental questions about space, time and the nature of the physical universe are discussed,” he said.
Why is his research significant?
“Gravity has two key features that other forces do not share. Unlike the weak and strong force, it is long-range and therefore key to the large-scale structures and phenomena…Large bodies like the sun and planets are all electrically neutral and so they don’t exert any electromagnetic force on one another. The dominant force between such bodies is therefore gravitational,” he explained.
After a prolific career in a diversity of disciplines, he termed this era of science to be the “truly golden age for gravity.” He rued how general relativity has remained an isolated branch of science till mid-1960s, regarded as a “pristine and beautiful theory, to be admired from a distance.”
“The paradigm has shifted completely and relativistic gravity has moved to centre stage of physics and astronomy. Through the big bang, black holes and gravitational waves, we realised that the universe is not a calm, peaceful place that the astronomers believed it to be in much of the 20th century,” he pointed out.
His work goes on to explain how energetic explosions sourced by strong gravity have essentially shaped the history of our universe. According to Ashtekar, relativistic gravity has completely overhauled our understanding of the cosmos.
“The deepest puzzles in fundamental physics today are at the interface of general relativity and quantum physics. What really happened at the big bang? What is the end point of the quantum evaporation of black holes? How do we incorporate gravity into the unified theories of all fundamental forces? It is clear therefore that gravity will continue to dominate research in physics and astronomy in the coming decades as well,” he said, proud of the milestones achieved in the field in recent years.
Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius.
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