In Conversation with Dr. Mayank Vahia

Dr. Mayank Vahia
Scientist, TATA Institute of Fundamental Research

" To know where we are going, we have to know where we came from "

It is our pleasure to introduce Dr. Mayank Vahia to our audience. Our correspondent, Mr Aditya Togi, got an opportunity to interact with him recently. He is a senior scientist at TIFR who had held many important positions during his career. ISS team might need another dedicated interview just to write about his complete research work. Here is a short-description from his own words.

 " My main fields of interest are high-energy astrophysics, mainly Cosmic Rays, X-rays and Gamma Rays.

I have been studying them by experiments as well as by modeling. I have participated in experiments such as Anuradha that was flown on the Space Shuttle in 1985 and Indian X-ray Astronomy Payload that was flown on an Indian Satellite in 1996. I have also participated in the Solar X-ray Spectroscopy Experiment that was launched on India's GSAT 2 satellite in 2003. I am now involved with the ASTROSAT, India's most ambitious multi wavelength astronomy satellite.

 My latest field of curiosity is the the field of Archaeoastronomy.

Science Popularisation is my hobby and I like creating programmes as well as giving lectures to students on issues of astronomy as well as science and society."


Q1.Could you please give us some background about your research focus in recent time?
My current research is in the field of archaeo astronomy – a study of evolution of astronomy from the prehistoric to modern period.

 Q2.You have been a dedicated researcher on “Archaeoastronomy” in Indian context. What is the importance of archaeoastronomy and what are the steps need to be taken to preserve the history?
To know where we are going, we have to know where we came from. Our attitudes to future is decided by our past experiences. Hence we must know who we are, and why we are the way we are in order to cope with the future. Another reason for studying the past is that even though formal, axiomatic studies of nature began only about four centuries ago, humans have been curious about and manipulating nature for more than two lakh years. Within this lies an enormous amount of information that can be related to the present and hence it is important to know this aspect of human intellectual growth.

Q3.If anyone interested to develop a career in the field of archaeoastronomy what expertise he/she may need? Do knowledge of Sanskrit language is mandatory? Is there any funding help from government to pursue this as a career?
What you need to know depends on what you wish to study. If you want to study old texts, knowledge of Sanskrit is highly desirable. For other aspects, like study of ancient monuments, tribal astronomy etc. Sanskrit is not needed. Many institutions like IIT(Bombay) offer PhD in history of astronomy.

Possible population groups in the subcontinent ~ 2000 BC

More than 100,000 years ago, human beings first became aware of themselves and of their surroundings. They began to notice the ever-changing patterns of this world involving transformation from birth and growth to death. The heavens would have appeared as the most important agency that seemingly controlled this cycle by bringing light, warmth and water. Yet, beyond the clouds in the sky, there seemed to be a cycle of stars that was both, ever changing on daily basis and almost stable in the long term. Click here to read complete article
Credit: TIFR

Q4.Could you please mention about 3 interesting facts in archaeoastronomy field that most of us are not aware of?

  • Some of the oldest astronomical observatories in India are more than 3000 (probably even as old as 5000) years old.
  • Astronomical perceptions Indian tribes is very different from the conventional astronomy.
  •  In India use of astronomy for personal astrology was probably introduced by the Greeks around 500 AD.

Q5.You are also involved in the area of high energy astrophysics. Can you tell us some of the exciting events happening in this field in India and abroad?
The most important event to come up soon is the launch of ASTROSAT, a satellite dedicated to study the universe in high energies.

Q6.What is your personal opinion on the important upcoming scientific missions like ASTROSAT and ADITYA from ISRO? Do you think these missions may induce a change in scientific outlook of people in coming future?
I think they are very important for Indian scientists to make important contributions to the world of learning and to vitalize Indian science. It will also invite young minds to think  of a career in science.

Q7.What kind of scientific missions that you personally would like to see in the coming years?
I think ASTROSAT is an excellent model where moderate capability instruments across a large range of wavelength will allow us to study the entire range of processes occurring on some individual objects. This is very different from the American approach. Americans tend to fly narrowly focused telescopes with high resolution – that is good for exploration but often leave questions of what the events looked line in other wavelengths unanswered.

Q8.According to you what is the biggest obstacle our nation is facing presently in dealing with basic science and what are the steps you recommend to overcome it?
Not enough high caliber scientists.

Q9.How do you summarize the development and changes in Indian science education compared to 25 years back?
I think India has made great strides. In 1980’s we had to go to USA to conduct space studies (and I was involved in an experiment on Space Station in 1986), then we could send instrument up on Russian satellites. Now we are completely self-sufficient. If you have a good idea and are willing to pursue it with vigor, you can do it from India.


Aditya Togi
Researcher, University of Toledo, USA

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