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Institute Lecture : In Conversation with Professor B.C Joshi

October 14, 2019

Professor B.C Joshi is an alumnus of the erstwhile University of Roorkee (our very own IITR), and is currently an Associate Professor at the National Center for Radio Astrophysics, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (NCRA-TIFR). He has been associated with the use of some of the largest telescopes across the world. His research areas include the study of pulsars and polarimetry. As part of our larger goal to increase the coverage of Institute Lectures, Watch Out! decided to interview Professor Joshi to talk to him about his research, his talk, and his life at University of Roorkee.

WO : You are an alumnus of this institute. What memories does being here bring back?

Prof. Joshi : Oh, plenty of good memories. You spend a major part of your life in college with your friends. Whenever I come back to the campus, I get transported back to the old times. I have good memories of the yacht club. I swam in the ganga canal many times. The three places I liked the most were the tennis court opposite to govind bhawan, the swimming pool and squash courts. We had very good sport facilities here and I made good use of them. I was a secretary of the stargazing club (Physics and Astronomy club now). One of my best memories is when I,along with a batchmate, built a telescope from scratch for which we visited the Nainital Observatory to get it polished. We spent countless hours building it. We used to have star parties frequently as well, those were happy times. Some of my best times were spent in the erstwhile University Canteen and talking about various things. We used to go to a place called Bhatia’s next to the Hangar Gate(convocation hall). Next to the gate, there was a small shack where we used to eat bun omelettes. Late night when we were preparing for our test series or something else, that was the only place you could go to eat when hungry. The initial Thomsos or Cult Fests were organized by us, and we got Pankaj Udhas as one of the artists. Also the Roorkee team winning the Cult Fest in IIT kanpur is a pleasant memory. I was also a Debating Secretary and a member of the Dramatics Club.

WO : When and how did you realise that research was your calling and how did you narrow it down to the particular area of research you are involved in? Could you tell us a bit about what your research deals with?

Prof. Joshi : It started from this very Physics Department. We had a faculty member Yogeshwar Singh, and it was very tough to get a good grade in his course. The HOD was Shri Krishna Joshi who organized a lot of things. I was interested in astronomy and physics, so I developed many things like instruments and so on. The Mathematics department had a Professor Chandrika Prasad, a renowned mathematician. He got an Astronomical Society of India meeting organized for which we had an astronomy exhibition set up. Professor Jayant Narilkar came there so we asked him what we could do in astronomy. He suggested many things which I followed subsequently.

I work in pulsar astronomy. Pulsars are very small stars which rotate very rapidly, and they are very good clocks. Because of this they are very important for several experiments like testing the General Theory of Relativity. You need huge radio telescopes for this and in India we have one of the largest telescopes in the world. I have been associated with that right from the days it was being built. I was one of the conceiving members of pulsar astronomy in India. So we started from scratch as there was nothing before that. The first pulsar observed from that was also done by me. That is what most of my research deals with and I remain deeply interested in.

WO : What topics will you be touching upon in your talk?

Prof. Joshi : will be talking about pulsars and clocks. I am going to illustrate that these clocks can be used for fundamental physics and how studying these clocks requires application of cutting edge engineering techniques. I will also talk about the use of these clocks in interstellar navigation. This has been recently demonstrated to work in the international space station one year back.

WO : What are your views about the efforts being made to popularize research with newly established institutes like IISERs? In general do you think that there are enough research opportunities/ the right direction for research in the country?

Prof. Joshi : I think this initiative is fairly good and it has been developing fairly fast. In general in the last 20-25 years we have made huge progress in doing cutting edge research. Internet has also helped in this as data can be transmitted very quickly now. In terms of funding, I think we are still way behind.

WO : A lot of undergraduates tend to sway away from research since it’s a path which requires a lot of struggle which often amounts to nothing. People also give up on careers in research for monetary reasons. What advice do you have for undergraduates wanting to pursue research?

Prof. Joshi : If we talk about engineering undergraduates, it’s not true that there are no monetary rewards in research. All the startups right now are based on some or the other form of research done by an engineering graduate. The environment in the country right now is not bad for an innovator who wants to do research. Fundamental Sciences is different because you don’t have a direct application in the human sphere because of which you can’t monetize your discovery. So if I discover a new pulsar no one is going to pay me for it. It is more to satisfy the human curiosity and there its a problem. But if you are very passionate about doing research, I don’t think there is a monetary disincentive, because you would eventually end up making good discoveries or doing fantastic science. There is a career for all such students, and you have to struggle. The science graduates will have to struggle more than their engineering counterparts as it is not a very straightforward or easy path.

The important thing is to have passion. When things get tough and there is not enough monetary incentive, it is the passion that sustains you.

WO : Do you think going into research/ becoming a scientist requires a high level of intelligence or is it a blend of both hardwork and IQ?

Prof. Joshi : In astronomy there are a number of examples where if you are hardworking, you will be able to uncover many things that the most intelligent person will not be able to. Some of the earliest stellar structures depended on correlations which were discovered by women who were very hardworking, and worked for 10-15 years. Even Newton’s Laws or later Kepler’s formulations are all based on painstaking experiments. Basic intelligence is obviously required to correlate things. You can’t discover things without having an analytical bent of mind. Many times discoveries are a matter of luck.

WO : How much has technology impacted scientific research? Can it be said that without the basic knowledge of programming languages/ other tools it’s difficult to conduct research work now?

Prof. Joshi : Oh it’s huuge, especially in my area of research. If we didn’t have gaming technologies it would be very difficult to do the research we are currently doing because we use GP GPUs everywhere. There are specialised GP GPUs for research and they have revolutionized computing to a large extent. Technologies create a discovery space, because discoveries happen when you explore a parameter space that has never been touched before. That enabling of parameter space happens only when there is a technological advancement.

With the help of computers and programming languages you can sort of reduce your menial tasks, and concentrate more on the fun and exciting parts. It’s not that if you don’t like programming, you can’t do anything but then you will have to depend on someone who knows it. So that is how you collaborate with people with different specialisations.

WO : Do you have any general words of advice for us?

Prof. Joshi : You should have fun in life. No matter what you do, if you are having fun you will make your mark. If you ever feel you are not having fun and that the work you’re doing is drudgery, you should shift from that path. Success and money will eventually come if you are having fun.