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May 15, 1999
'They just did not think that one could have a career in research'
Abhay Ashtekar comes from a family with diverse interests. His father holds a degree in law while his mother wrote short stories. The three children, of whom Ashtekar is the youngest, also pursued radically different disciplines.
Dr Ashtekar's brother, who died a few years ago, studied philosophy and his sister is a pediatrician in Pune. Because their father was in the civil service, the family moved often within the state of Maharashtra.
"I was a very happy child," recalls Dr Ashtekar. He recounts memories of a small town atmosphere, lots of trees, birds, "a really wonderful" childhood. Those were days before private tutorials and intense competition, when a child could be a child. "I used to finish my homework in a half-hour and play all day," he adds, chuckling. He played at gulli danda, kabaddi, the local Maharashtrian game langdi, and in later years, cricket.
When he was in seventh grade, the family moved to Kolhapur and he found himself in an English-medium school for the first time, trying to catch up with his peers. "That was a shock for me," he remembers. It was then that he acquired the habit of studying for long periods of time and lost interest in sport. He devoured books on physics, mathematics and cosmology, obtained from his brother's college library. "The whole idea that one could study the physics of the whole universe was very fascinating to me," he says.
The family was not academic and like many Indian families, expected him to join the Indian Administrative Service, or become an engineer or a doctor. "They just did not think that one could have a career in research," Dr Ashtekar explains. Accordingly, he did appear for the entrance examination for the Indian Institute of Technology, the final word in a science education for many talented young people.
Deciding not to go to IIT "was not psychologically easy because I had to convince everyone -- parents, myself, friends -- that I was not crazy," he says. Instead, he pursued a career in research in the United States and eventually enrolled in a Ph D program at the University of Chicago.
He points to three men as his mentors: At the University of Chicago, he met Nobel Laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who passed away three years ago. He remembers 'Chandra', as the scientist was known to friends, with affection and respect. Although he won every prize possible, what was most striking about the man was "his character, his way of looking at science, at what is important, his sense of values," Dr Ashtekar says.
From his Ph D supervisor Robert Geroch, he learned scientific tools and from Roger Penrose at Oxford University, the creative process. "From (Penrose), watching him, I learned how to dream, how to grow in the dark, how to smell interesting problems and go after them," he recalls.
While his family in India is naturally proud of his accomplishments, Dr Ashtekar says, they may not understand how important his contributions are. To them, an article in The New York Times may not seem much more impressive than one in Kolhapur's local paper, he says.
"Recognition and accomplishment in one's own field is too abstract and they don't have a standard for comparison...They are proud but in a real sense, they don't understand the gradation of achievement," he explains.
'It is not all my work... it's a joint collaboration' The Ashtekar profile continues.
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