Meet India's million dollar scientist

DELHI -- A shy scientist in a small town just won the most lucrative science prize in history.

DELHI -- It isn’t everyday that a theoretical physicist from a small Indian city is catapulted into the limelight -- chased by the media and wowed by the public.

But that’s what happened to Ashoke Sen, a string theorist in Allahabad in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, after he won the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize this month.

Russian entrepreneur and billionaire Yuri Milner has established the most lucrative science prize in history, which is double the 1.2 million awarded for the Nobel Prize.

Milner, an investor in Facebook, Twitter, Groupon, and Zynga, has awarded nine scientists a total of $27 million for “advancing our knowledge of the Universe at the deepest level” as well as “communicating the excitement of fundamental physics to the public.”

While the majority of laureates are based in the US, Sen from the Harish-Chandra Research Institute is the only Indian to win.

There are two categories of prizes: Fundamental Physics Prizes recognizes transformative advances in the field, while the New Horizons in Physics Prizes are targeted at promising junior researchers.

But the 50-year-old Russian billionaire, who dropped out of graduate studies in nuclear science during the late 1980s, still remains a bit of an enigma and his generous prize came out of the blue for many of the awardees. Sen, too, told the press that he had never heard of the prize before.

Sen, who studied at Presidency College in Kolkata, the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, and obtained his doctorate at the Stony Brook University in New York, said he isn't religious.

With $3 million, Sen is now one of the richest scientists in the world. In India, pursuing a science-based profession rarely brings wealth or recognition. SmartPlanet spoke with Sen about his work and new fame.

SP: You’ve received the most generous science prize in the world – how did you react when you found out?

AS: I came to know about it about a week before the announcement when I was in Germany for a conference. I got a phone call from Mr. Milner informing me of the prize. I was of course pleasantly surprised, and so was my family.

SP: Could you tell us about string theory so we all understand?

AS: String theory is an attempt to understand the most basic constituents of all matter and the forces which operate between them. It is based on the idea that the elementary constituents of matter are not point particles, but one dimensional objects i.e. strings. This theory automatically combines quantum mechanics, and general relativity -- Einstein's theory of gravity.

It also has the potential for explaining the other known forces of nature - strong, weak and electromagnetic forces.

SP: How does string theory affect our daily lives?

AS: At present string theory is a purely theoretical attempt to understand how nature works and has no effect on our daily lives. However, as with any scientific development, it is hard to predict how it might affect our lives 100 years from now.

SP: This award recognizes your contribution to strong weak coupling duality. Can you explain this?

AS: Strong weak coupling duality' refers to certain symmetries of string theory which are hidden and not easy to discover.

In the mid-nineties, I devised specific strategies for discovering and finding evidence for such symmetries, and used it to find strong evidence for the existence of this symmetry in certain theories. This strategy was later used by others to discover many other duality symmetries in various string theories, and eventually led to the realization that the five consistent string theories known at that time are all related by various duality transformations, and hence different limits of a single underlying theory.

SP: Is there a great deal of competition among scientists in your field of research? What has been the pace of developments from the past century?

AS: There are a large number of excellent people working in this field and so there is a great deal of friendly competition. It is hard to quantify the pace of movement in the subject, but there certainly has been a great deal of progress in the subject since its birth in the late 1960's.

SP: How would this award contribute to your growth as a scientist and science in India?

AS: In India, often the parents discourage their children to go into science even if they are interested since it is not a lucrative profession. The result is that many young students who are good in science and want to get into science end up having to study engineering or other subjects. This prize may change this attitude by creating more awareness about science among people.

SP: It is often said that Indian scientists need the resources and environment of say- the top American universities- to grow? What do you think of research facilities available for theoretical physicists like you here?

AS: In theoretical physics one can in principle work from any place as long as one has a computer and internet connection. Also at present India has many excellent people working in string theory. So I think that the facilities and the research environment available in India are more than adequate to carry out research in theoretical physics.

SP: How are you handling all the media attention and fame?

AS: Fortunately since Allahabad is a remote place, much of the interaction with the media has been over telephone calls and e-mails, although I did have several news groups visit our institute during the last week.

SP:  You are the richest scientist in India now. Would you mind sharing what you plan to do with the big win?

AS: I have not finalized my plans, but I do want to use a significant fraction of the money towards promoting education in India at various levels.

Photos- Google images-

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