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In the sparks of Oppenheimer, lies the story of a forgotten Indian genius

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Oem Trivedi
Oem Trivedi
Oem Trivedi is a fellow of the royal astronomical society, currently the youngest one in the world. He works on various topics on the interface of quantum gravity and cosmology, having particular interests on dark energy, the early universe and black holes. He is also a member of various international cosmology teams, like the LSST Dark energy science collaboration, the WST collaboration and the Cosmic explorer consortium.

Watching Oppenheimer’s movie as a cosmologist I particularly liked the mention of his work on gravitational collapse with his student at Berkeley, Hartland Snyder. There was a very small glance over on his 1939 paper, with Hartland telling him “the world will remember this work” and it really did remember it.

Oppenheimer and Snyder laid the proper groundwork for how a star would eventually collapse to a black hole in that paper, which is incredibly interesting considering that it was at a time when most people fancied that Black holes were just a mathematical fantasy associated with Einstein’s general relativity and not something which has any physical significance.

At the time, Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity was relatively new, and its implications on the behavior of massive stars were not fully explored. Oppenheimer and Snyder sought to understand the fate of massive stars after they have exhausted their nuclear fuel and were no longer able to counterbalance the gravitational force pulling them inward.

As the star continues to collapse under its own gravity, its density and gravitational pull increased dramatically, which propelled Oppenheimer and Snyder towards the discovery that this increasing density leads to a critical point where the gravitational forces became so intense that even light could not escape from the star’s surface. They referred to this point as the “event horizon,” a term later associated with black holes.

Some say that if Oppenheimer and Snyder were alive in the 1990s when black holes were fully established mainstream physics notions then for this paper alone, they could have won a Nobel prize. But what if I tell you that an Indian physicist had worked on the exact same thing a year ago and worked out pretty much the same results alone in 1937 that Oppenheimer and Snyder found in 1939?

The name of that great mind was Bishveshwar Datt. Datt had worked and solved the technical problems related to gravitational collapse in 1937 itself and it is likely he had done it even earlier given that his paper was published in German (which was a prevalent trend in that time as a majority of leading physics journals were based in Germany).

One can make an argument that Datt’s work would have taken quite some time to get translated to German as there is no reason to believe he was fluent in the language himself and so it could have been possible he would have worked out the problem quite a lot before his work was published. Similar to Oppenheimer and Snyder, Datt’s calculations led him to identify a critical point during the collapse, where the star’s density and gravitational pull became so intense that nothing, not even light, could escape from its surface. This point marks the formation of the “event horizon,” beyond which the collapsing matter would become a black hole.

Datt’s pioneering work independently arrived at conclusions that were remarkably similar to Oppenheimer and Snyder’s findings. He essentially predicted the existence and behavior of black holes through his own theoretical analysis of gravitational collapse and much before the former two did at UC Berkeley.

This work is certainly pathbreaking and it is very satisfying to see that researchers have started referring to this process of gravitational collapse as “Oppenheimer-Snyder-Datt collapse” in recent research papers on these topics. While the black hole research community, both in India and abroad appreciates the work of Bishveswar Datt, one is left to wonder why the average Indian does not know about this great mind from India.

Indeed, one may wonder what awards and accolades Datt would have got after this stunning work of his on collapse ? One thing we are certain of is that his life went in a tragic direction. He used to study in Presidency college in Kolkata and his work on gravitational collapse resulted in his one and only research paper, as he passed away soon after this.

Further, it is more saddening to know that Datt died during a faulty surgery, while he was being operated for Hernia in 1940. Hence, India lost what could have been one of the greatest cosmologist of the 20th century, only because of someone’s mistake.

But surely there must be awards commemorating his legacy, surely there must be some stamp papers with his photos on it or there must be some road in some part of India named after him right ? After all we see that such recognitions are routinely given on the names of people whose works have had far less significance (if at all) as compared to that of Datt. But the sad and harrowing truth is, leave aside roads or awards being named on him, there is not even one publicly available photo of Datt to even celebrate his legacy and work. Furthermore, neither the governments in West Bengal or those in the centre or anywhere across India have ever celebrated his achievements in any capacity.

So while the whole of India happily buys tickets to the Oppenheimer and watches the celebration of the life of geniuses like Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Bethe and other legendary physicists, may we Indians also pause for a while and celebrate the genius of Bishveshwar Datt?

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Oem Trivedi
Oem Trivedi
Oem Trivedi is a fellow of the royal astronomical society, currently the youngest one in the world. He works on various topics on the interface of quantum gravity and cosmology, having particular interests on dark energy, the early universe and black holes. He is also a member of various international cosmology teams, like the LSST Dark energy science collaboration, the WST collaboration and the Cosmic explorer consortium.
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