By Mayabhushan Nagvenkar
Panaji: An expat Indian astronomer in Texas, who was one of the first humans to glimpse the Universe’s most distant galaxy, is hopeful about the future of science in India and about India pitching in to build the world’s largest telescope.
“I am optimistic about the future of science and education in India,” Goa-born Vithal Tilvi told IANS in an e-mail interview, adding that investing in these spheres always reaped prosperity.
A post-doctoral research associate at Texas A&M University, Tilvi also lauded the Indian government’s initiative to invest, along with Canada, Japan, China and the US, in large facilities like the world’s largest optical and infra-red telescope that spans 30 metres.
Tilvi was part of a team headed by noted astronomer Steven Finkelstein which sighted the new galaxy z8_GND_5296. They caught sight of it in infra-red light, after its light bounced off the orbiting Hubble Space telescope and a Hawaiian observatory after travelling 13.1 billion years.
The implications of this discovery are huge, says the astronomer, who hails from Betki, a pastoral Goan village 30 km from here.
“Apart from making a world record as the most-distant galaxy in the universe humankind has ever seen, such galaxies give us a glimpse of the universe when it was young. Because light takes some finite amount of time to travel, we are seeing this galaxy as it was 13 billion years ago,” Tilvi said.
A few billion years later may have been a tad too late for a discovery, says the animated Tilvi, claiming that by then, the night sky would have considerably changed.
“If we were born after a few billion years we would not have seen this newly discovered galaxy because as the universe expands, all galaxies move away from each other. These galaxies, after a few billion years, will move so far away that their light will never reach us and the night sky won’t be as beautiful,” claimed Tilvi.
The fact that there weren’t many galaxies sighted along with the z8_GND_5296, only suggests that the universe was dynamic and had changed considerably since the time it was “young”.
“It was more opaque when it was young and then it changed to a transparent universe – everything in the universe has changed since then. We are trying to understand when exactly this critical change happened,” he said.
Speaking about his years in Goa, Tilvi claimed that he was an “average boy with not too many ambitions” who liked playing outdoors in his “typical Goan village”, but it was his quest for research which first took him to the Goa University, followed by a work-stint at the central government operated National Institute of Oceanography (NIO) near Panaji before finally making the move to the US to pursue what he loves most: research.
“I was always curious to know how things worked. And being born in a village, it gave me an opportunity to understand nature, especially the night sky full of twinkling bright stars, which one cannot enjoy from a city. I never knew that one day I would be a professional astronomer,” he said.
On the education system in Goa, Tilvi says that while there is still a large disconnect between university research and local industry needs, there has been a significant movement recently towards improving education in Goa.
“Without a strong collaboration between the two, progress cannot be achieved. This necessitates lively and student-friendly university and college campuses, regular research activities including talks by visitors from research institutes as well as industries and rewarding achievements,” he said, adding that an active learning environment is very critical for fostering new ideas.