Remembering Rathnasree Nandivada, Who Brought the Stars To All of Us

Rathnasree Nandivada at the Jantar Mantar in Jaipur, 2018. Photo: Alok Mandavgane

Every community has a few people who are so central to its functioning, so exemplify its purpose, and so looked up to, that it seems impossible to contemplate a future without them. Rathnasree Nandivada, who passed away on May 9, 2021, was one such person in the astronomy community of India. She was the director of the Nehru planetarium in New Delhi, which is under the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, for the last 21 years, and was a bridge between astronomy research and the people.

She was one of the brightest stars in the astronomy outreach community in India and a true public scientist. She had a wide range of interests as a science populariser, but those who knew her will remember two things had a special place in her heart: her planetarium and the Jantar Mantars. Both of these have now lost their strongest patron.

Nandivada grew up in Andhra Pradesh and had three siblings. She completed her masters in physics from the Hyderabad Central University in 1986. Her classmates and hostel-mates still remember her as extremely helpful and fun at the same time, always ready to assist her peers. Another memory shared by her friends was her immense love for old Hindi film songs. Much later in her life, she even compiled a list of astronomy-themed songs sung by Kishore Kumar to be used in her planetarium shows.

After her MSc, she joined the astronomy department of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, for her PhD, and was one of the few women students at the time. There, she started work on simulating the last stages of massive stars before they explode as supernovae. Only a few months after her joining TIFR, the international astronomy community’s attention was grabbed by a spectacular supernova that exploded in the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way.

Nandivada’s PhD thesis (1986-1992), under the mentorship of Prof Alak Ray, revolved around binary stars in the LMC and their life cycles. In this context, she also started work on pulsars in the LMC. She continued her exploration of radio observations of pulsars during her stints at the University of Vermont, with Prof Joanna Rankin (1992-1994), and at the Raman Research Institute, Bangalore (1994-1996), with Prof Avinash Deshpande.

The now-defunct Arecibo Observatory. Photo: JidoBG/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

During her stay in the US, she conducted extensive observations from the Arecibo radio telescope, Puerto Rico, then the largest of its kind in the world. Her research on pulsars focused on various aspects of the stability of their radio emissions. This work remains relevant to date.

In these same years, she reached some important milestones in her life outside astronomy. During her time at TIFR, she met the love of her life, Patrick Dasgupta, a fellow student of the department. They both shared a love of astrophysics as well as of music, food and many other things besides. They were soon married and had a son, Ujjwal.

Her colleagues talk about how Nandivada managed her PhD work as well as looking after her son for some time, when Patrick had to move to the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune, after his PhD.

At the time, though the Department of Science and Technology had already introduced maternity leave for research scholars, it wasn’t yet the norm at TIFR. Nandivada was the first research scholar at TIFR to fight for her right for maternity leave and succeed. In that sense, she was a trailblazer for all future women scholars at TIFR.

In academia, we often encounter what is jokingly called a “two-body problem”. As the number of top-tier research positions in any one city are limited, a scientist-couple may need to spend many years living in different cities until they can both find suitable opportunities in the same city. Sometimes one of them decides to explore options outside formal academia.

The pair of Patrick Dasgupta and Rathnasree Nandivada was faced with the “two-body problem” as well. Dasgupta had joined the department of physics and astrophysics at the Delhi University, so Nandivada decided she would find her next opportunity in Delhi as well. And she found her new calling when she was asked to join the Nehru Planetarium in Delhi, as a senior astronomy educator. This was 1996. Innumerable students of Delhi and the science outreach community in India have since been thankful for this decision.

In only three years, when the incumbent director of the planetarium, Nirupama Raghavan, retired, Nandivada was offered the position. She was 36 years of age. In those days, the planetarium projector was opto-mechanical, aided by slide projectors, and Rathnasree donned the roles of scriptwriter, music director, narrator, producer and film director all at once.

When many planetaria in the country later upgraded to a fully digital system, Nandivada realised this was not optimal and insisted on a hybrid projector – a choice planetaria in other cities subsequently adopted as well.

At the time, the digital projection system was fantastic for animations, but its output was poorer when projecting the night sky. A hybrid system allowed use of an optomechanical projection sphere to more realistically simulate the night sky, with digital projectors looped in for some advanced animation.

Rathnasree Nandivada at the Jantar Mantar in Delhi, 2015. Photo: Rakesh Rao

She was the master of the planetarium dome, and was forever looking for creative means to use it. These ranged from research on the accuracy of medieval astronomy instruments to visualising large datasets for student projects.

Sometime in the early 2000s, Nandivada fell in love with the large astronomical instruments of the Jantar Mantars, built by Raja Sawai Jai Singh II of Jaipur in the mid-18th century. Where everyone else saw historical monuments, Nandivada saw open-air physics laboratories, and she made them come alive for the school students of Delhi. She trained successive batches of students to carry out actual measurements with them. She was very proud of the fact that her students could finally measure time to an accuracy of just two seconds using one of these yantras.

In fact, she became the foremost expert in this field and figured out how to calibrate each instrument and use it as it was originally intended. In recognition, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) appointed her on the ASI’s committee to oversee maintenance and restoration of the Delhi Jantar Mantar instruments. She became their champion and made sure the restoration work did not compromise the accuracy with which one could make measurements thereafter.

In February 2018, India hosted a prestigious event – the International Astronomical Union Symposium (IAUS340) on Solar Physics, at Jaipur. Nandivada used this opportunity to make the Jaipur Jantar Mantar accessible as a laboratory as well. She decided to train the tour guides on how to make measurements, and created activity sheets for the yantras so that each visitor to the Jantar Mantar could make their own measurements at each of them.

She was the people’s astronomer, and made the Delhi planetarium an oasis for students interested in science. Even if they weren’t interested, she has, in the past, called out to passersby: “Aaiye, dekhiye hum kya kar rahe hain, hum samjhayenge, yeh free hai.” (‘Come see what we are doing, we will explain it to you, this is free.’) Where many astronomy communicators may have been satisfied if students attended a lecture, Nandivada insisted that everyone was capable of doing astronomy, and came up with hands-on experiments, simple measurement exercises and calculations for her students to perform. The students she had mentored over the years became a huge family. She was forever willing to discuss astronomy with everyone, even with those who held contrary views.

When the Astronomical Society of India constituted its Public Outreach and Education Committee in 2014, the obvious choice for chairperson was Rathnasree Nandivada. In that role, she set the course for many of the committee’s long-running programs and brought the team together. Most of its activities that focused on students have been her brainchild, from organising regular online discussions with astronomers to devising simple experiments around celestial events like eclipses and conjunctions.

A view of the Nehru Planetarium from within the Teen Murti Bhavan premises. Photo: varunshiv/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

A project that she envisioned and implemented for the 150th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi in 2019 was quintessential Rathnasree Nandivada. She unearthed the fact that Gandhi had become interested in astronomy and sky-watching when he was jailed in Pune. She assiduously collected all his astronomy writing and proposed the “Bapu Khagol Mela”, for which she wished to visit every location that Gandhi had visited in India and organise a sky-watching session there for the people. She managed to cover quite a few of them, and her travel path is now dotted with telescopes that she guided the schools in each of these towns to build.

Vera Rubin, the astronomer who had played a central role in the discovery of dark matter, used to say, “A woman’s place is in the dome” (referring to the one crowning the telescope). Rathnasree Nandivada also found her place in the planetarium dome, under the stars that she brought down to Earth for all of us, every day.

Aniket Sule is an associate professor of science education at Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE-TIFR), Mumbai. Niruj Mohan Ramanujam works at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bengaluru. Both of them are a part of the Public Outreach and Education Committee of the Astronomical Society of India.

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