Thanu Padmanabhan: Kerala’s own lodestar in physics

A year ago, Stanford University’s citation study ranked Prof Thanu Padmanabhan as 24th in the field of theoretical physics in the world.

Published: 18th September 2021 11:15 AM  |   Last Updated: 18th September 2021 03:46 PM   |  A+A-

Thanu Padmanabhan in front of the physics department of University College, Thiruvananthapuram, in 2017

By Express News Service

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A year ago, Stanford University’s citation study had ranked Prof Thanu Padmanabhan as 24th in the world in the field of theoretical physics. In an academic career spanning 44 years, Thanu Padmanabhan had written about a dozen books, 300 research papers and earned about 17,800 citations. Had death not put a brake on his academic pursuits, Thanu Padmanabhan might have brought the coveted Nobel Prize to India one day. He died in Pune on Friday morning after collapsing at his home. He was rushed to the nearby hospital where he succumbed during the treatment. Doctors certified the cause of death as cardiac arrest. 

Thanu Padmanabhan who was born in Thiruvananthapuram in 1957 had a high level of scholarship in many areas of theoretical physics. His publications were mostly in Quantum and Classical Gravity, Cosmology and Structure Formation in the Universe. Thanu Padamanabhan’s experiments with gravity had fetched him prizes in nine years in the prestigious annual Gravity Essay contest conducted by the Gravity Research Foundation, USA. 

The inquisitiveness in Thanu was noted by his classmates and teachers when he had been doing BSc in Physics at the Govt University College, here. He passed BSc (1977) and MSc (1979) from the Kerala University, with a gold medal. He published his first research paper in General Relativity at the age of 20 when he was still a BSc student. After completing PhD from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), he had held different positions in TIFR till 1992, when he moved to Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune. At the time of death, Padmanabhan was working as the Distinguished Professor at IUCAA. He was also an adjunct faculty member of IISER (Mohali), IISER (Pune), IISER (Trivandrum), Raman Research Institute (Bangalore), TIFR (Mumbai), Harish- Chandra Research Institute (Allahabad) and Jamia Millia Islamia (Delhi).

Thanu Padmanabhan was a Sackler Distinguished Astronomer of the Institute of Astronomy (IoA), Cambridge, the UK and a Visiting Faculty at several institutions abroad. The distinguished scientist had won several laurels including Padma Shri in 2007. Among the many awards he had won are Bhatnagar Award and Infosys Science Prize. A few months ago, Kerala government selected him for the Shastra Puraskaram of 2021. 

The work of Thanu Padmanabhan was not confined to laboratories. He had made commendable contributions in popularizing science among general public by giving lectures and writing in popular magazines. A comic strip serial authored by him, The Story of Physics, intended for school children, has been translated into several regional Indian languages. He coordinated the International Year of Astronomy 2009 activities in India.

CM Pinarayi Vijayan said the demise of Thanu Padmanabhan was heart-wrenching.

"He was Kerala's gift to the world. His life which he devoted to scientific research will always be an inspiration to science students," said Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan.

Governor Arif Mohammed Khan remembered him as a gifted science communicator. “His masterful contribution to research in Cosmology and Astrophysics will be long remembered,” said the Governor. 

Thanu Padmanabhan is survived by his wife Vasanthi Padmanabhan and daughter Hamsa Padmanabhan. Both Vasanthi and Hamsa have doctorates in Astrophysics. 


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