Mumbai: Jayant Vishnu Narlikar is one of the few cosmologists in the world to disagree with the Big Bang theory, which states that the birth of the universe began with the rapid explosion of matter from a single point. Even as he dismisses speculation over theories like parallel universes, the 76-year-old Narlikar, inspired by his mentor Fred Hoyle (who died in 2001), continues to work on the revised quasi-steady state cosmological theory that posits an infinite universe. In an interview in Pune on Thursday, the founder-director of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics insisted the universe has no beginning or an end. He also spoke about his encounters with theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking and his own research with bacteria and viruses that may eventually reveal that life did not originate on earth, but rather was transported here from some place in space. A recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian honour, Narlikar spends considerable time popularizing science in India through his science-fiction books and lectures. But he no longer attends the annual Indian Science Congress, and believes that outlandish claims at such events damage the reputation of good scientists. Edited excerpts:

What inspired you to become a scientist?

I was born in Kolhapur, but brought up in Benares since my father was a professor in the Banaras Hindu University. My father was a mathematics professor and a good research scientist. My mother, too, was a Sanskrit teacher. It was this academic bent of mind in my family that inspired me to become a professor. I graduated with a BSc in maths, physics and statistics. I was 19 then, and left for Cambridge by boat since it cost 1,000 including food (in 1957), whereas a flight to London would have cost me around 1,500. It took me 18 days to reach Cambridge, but the journey was memorable and one of absolute luxury since there was a lot of entertainment too. When I went to Cambridge for higher studies, I wanted to opt for higher mathematics. There were teachers who were teaching astronomy, with applications of mathematics, and that was interesting. This might have influenced my choice of research area in terms of theoretical astronomy. I completed my four-year course in just three years. I spent another three years doing my PhD.

Stephen Hawking was in Cambridge, too, around that time.

I was a student of Hoyle from 1960-63. In my last year, I was awarded a King’s College Fellowship. Stephen Hawking joined in 1961 and wanted to do research under Hoyle. But at that time, Hoyle had to decline since he was overloaded with students. I was in touch with Hawking for about two-three years. He was fond of Western classical music and the King’s College library had a very good collection of records. As a fellow I could borrow them, so Hawking used to sometimes ask me for those records so that he could copy them. At that time, his health was normal. In fact, I remember playing a table tennis tournament and defeating Hawking in the finals. It was only around 1963-64 that Hawking began showing signs of his illness and he started needing a stick and a wheelchair.

You support steady-state cosmology, which provides an alternative to the Big Bang theory. The sign on your door, too, reads: “The Big Bang is an exploding myth".

That sign was given to me by some people who know of my inclination (laughs). My research supervisor Hoyle was a very versatile and imaginative person. In fact, I am in the midst of reading his autobiography titled The Small World of Fred Hoyle, confined to his school-year experiences—how he was brought up in a relatively unacademic atmosphere, but had parents who were very appreciative of scholarship because of which he imbibed a critical thinking attitude. When he was mentoring me, I picked up some of these traits—not to jump on the bandwagon, but to examine a statement before I agree or disagree. So the Big Bang that you see on the board is a bandwagon idea that everyone seems to subscribe to. I don’t. Many people identify me with the steady-state theory, but I did not create it. It was Hoyle and two others in 1948 that did so. In the 1960s, Hoyle and myself put a lot of mathematics in this theory. In 1966, Hoyle set up a new institute of astronomy and I was one of its founding members. I was in Cambridge till 1972 after which I chose to be back in India. In 1993, along with Hoyle, Thomas Gold and Hermann Bondi, we revised the steady- state theory and came up with the quasi-steady state cosmology, which is a cross between the original steady-state theory and the Big Bang.

There were quite a few outlandish claims at the recent Indian Science Congress in Mumbai, such as ancient India having planes that could fly to other planets and that the Pythagoras theorem was first developed in India. Your perspective.

There were also good things that happened at the Congress, but what got publicity were claims such as these which do damage the reputation of scientists when presented in this manner. A priori, if you wish to examine that question, you can need to present supporting evidence for the claims. I myself wrote a book The Scientific Edge in 2003 that did highlight the good and bad in Indian science. I’ve not been attending events like the Indian Science Congress because I do not like places where people gather in thousands. It puts me off. I prefer an audience of 100-200 at most.

According to our quasi-steady state cosmology theory, the universe goes through cycles of expansion and contraction together with a long-term trend of expansion. I give the example of vegetable prices in the market. Depending on the seasons, the prices go up and down, but over five years, they would have gone up regardless of the season. So there is no beginning to the universe. The Big Bang has a start. But the simple answer is that we don’t know. You have to get used to the idea that there was nothing before the Big Bang. In the quasi-steady state theory, there is no beginning or no end.

It was always there as they say in India: Anadi Ananta (without beginning and without end). There are stars in the cosmos and you can estimate their ages. If you find a star that is 20 billion years old, you will be worried since the Big Bang universe is just about 14 billion years old. On the other hand, you can even accommodate old stars in the quasi-steady state theory. So there’s a test that we are proposing to decide between the two cosmologies: are there any very old stars whose age precede that of the universe as propounded by the Big Bang theory?

About three-four years back, we thought we had found a good sample and even wanted to publish it. The age of a star is typically determined seeing how red it is. The redder the star, the older it is. However, one of the referees of our paper pointed out, and rightly so, that you can get redness around a star even due to interstellar dust, so he asked us to be certain that our sample was not infected by dust. We were not able to establish that as yet. So we are in search of more precise criteria, and hope to do so with the latest telescope that is under construction.

But Big Bang theory proponents do speak of the possibility of the existence of parallel universes, which does imply that several big bangs could have taken place, thus addressing the issue of what came before the Big Bang.

I don’t care much about these theories since there is no way to prove it. If you show an observational test that will allow me to look for a parallel universe, then it will make sense. Much in science about things like worm holes, parallel universes, the multi-verse theory, etc., are hypotheses for now.

You have done a lot of work in India to make science popular. How’s the response?

They get very good response. When I speak to school children, many have read my novels, and I still follow the postcard method of answering science questions. Obviously I even use email to answer such questions today. Kids wanted my signature, so the postcards. Today, they can get my scanned signature. I would classify the responses I get into two categories. The older generation especially, those I define as 30 and above, are already frozen in their religious beliefs and superstitions. They will listen politely, but say they must continue with their belief systems. The younger group, which I typically identify as school children, those under 15, is taking some of these things seriously and I hope they will continue like that.

You are also doing research on how life came to earth.

I like to toy with ideas that are outside the normal. So my belief is that life on earth was not created on earth, but was planted on earth by a shower of bacteria and viruses from outside the earth. This means that life on earth came from somewhere in the interstellar space. They could have come from comets, asteroids, meteors, etc., in a frozen state so they did not need energy to sustain, but they (the microorganisms) are alive. When they drift towards the Sun, the ice mantle that is around the microorganisms melts and evaporates, releasing them as live beings. We wanted to test this hypothesis. So we released a balloon 41km into the air, collected the air samples at that height between 2001 and 2005 and found that the samples contained bacteria that were different from the ones found on the surface of the earth. We have named some of those new bacteria after Hoyle, Aryabhatta and ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation). Now we want to test whether these new microorganisms that were found, were transported from the earth by a local storm or volcano, or whether they came from space. So we need to do an isotope analysis of the bacteria to find out how much carbon they contain. If the percentage of carbon is different from the terrestrial bacteria, then they are from outside earth. But we are yet to sort out how to do this experiment.

There are fewer students taking up science today. Is that disheartening?

I look at the brighter side. The creation of the Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research (IISERs) that emphasize on pure sciences and not technologies like the Indian Institutes of Technology is a positive sign. IISERs are getting good students, and some of them will definitely do research. Some of these benefits will surely show up in 5-10 years. Academically, we are no way inferior in attracting talent, but the numbers are small, so it does seem like a drop in the ocean.

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