Solving puzzles of the universe

Ramanath Cowsik bridges the gap between the theoretical and experimental physics

He was 13 when he completed high school, 17 when he earned a bachelor’s degree — with three majors, two minors — and 19 when he earned a master’s, so it’s not surprising to hear the many accolades placed on Ramanath Cowsik, Ph.D., professor of physics in Arts & Sciences.

Physicist Ramanath Cowsik is building an extremely sensitive torsion balance, an instrument used to measure small forces, in his search for new fundamental forces in nature. In addition to studying several problems in high-energy physics and dark matter — matter that is believed to make up 65 percent of the universe's mass — Cowsik is interested in probing possible violations of Newton's inverse square law at sub-millimeter distances.
Physicist Ramanath Cowsik is building an extremely sensitive torsion balance, an instrument used to measure small forces, in his search for new fundamental forces in nature. In addition to studying several problems in high-energy physics and dark matter — matter that is believed to make up 65 percent of the universe’s mass — Cowsik is interested in probing possible violations of Newton’s inverse square law at sub-millimeter distances.

Cowsik has been compared to Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist considered one of the 20th century’s greatest scientists, for his ability to bridge the gap between theoretical and experimental physics.

He’s been called the father of “astroparticle physics” — a marriage of astrophysics and cosmology (the sciences of the incredibly huge) with particle physics (the science of the inconceivably small).

His paper describing the role of neutrinos and other weakly interacting particles in cosmology as dark matter was chosen by the American Physical Society as one of the “Papers of the Century.”

Considered one of the world’s pre-eminent astrophysicists, Cowsik has made several seminal and lasting contributions to neutrino physics, gravitation and almost every aspect of high-energy astrophysics. He has significantly contributed to the understanding of particle physics, cosmic-ray physics, gamma and X-ray astronomy, and cosmology.

“Ram Cowsik has the attributes I most admire in a scientist,” says distinguished cosmic ray physicist P. Buford Price, Ph.D., professor in the Graduate School at the University of California, Berkeley.

Price had heard Cowsik, then a newly minted Ph.D., give several talks on cosmic ray studies at a 1969 conference in Budapest. Price was impressed and invited Cowsik to teach at Berkeley.

“Throughout his entire career, he has thought broadly and creatively about unsolved puzzles at the forefront of physics,” Price continues. “As an assistant professor at Berkeley (1970-73), he thought deeply about the possibility that neutrinos might have a non-zero mass.

“In two landmark papers, he first showed that the expansion rate of the universe sets a very stringent upper limit on the masses of the different types of neutrinos; then he turned the argument around and made a strong case that neutrinos do have non-zero masses that can account for much of the dark matter in the universe.

“In the last couple of years it has been shown that Ram was right: neutrinos do have mass,” Price adds.

“Professor Cowsik is a rare kind of physicist, one who has achieved fame in experimental as well as theoretical physics,” says WUSTL colleague Thomas J. Bernatowicz, Ph.D., professor of physics. “It is very rare to have made noteworthy contributions in both, one of the few modern examples of whom is Enrico Fermi.”

Filling a gap

Born in Nagpur, India, Cowsik grew up in and around Bangalore, in southern India. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, chemistry and mathematics, with minors in English and Sanskrit, at the University of Mysore in 1958.

Ramanath Cowsik, his wife, Sudha, and son Aditya enjoy a visit to the St. Louis Science Center's Planetarium. Another son, Siddhartha, works for Microsoft in Seattle.
Ramanath Cowsik, his wife, Sudha, and son Aditya enjoy a visit to the St. Louis Science Center’s Planetarium. Another son, Siddhartha, works for Microsoft in Seattle.

He earned a master’s degree in physics at Karnatak University in 1960 and a doctorate in physics in 1968 from the University of Bombay, while working at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, where he taught and did research for more than 40 years.

While at the Tata Institute, he reluctantly took on the directorship of the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA) in 1992.

“I was happy doing my science without the added responsibilities of administration,” Cowsik says, “but some very close friends of mine prevailed upon me and after some delay, I couldn’t say ‘no’ to them.”

He did more than direct the institute for 11 years; he was instrumental in building the world’s highest ground-based observatory at Hanle, Ladakh, in the Himalayas. Cowsik was involved in all aspects of the project, including finding the dry, remote site at 15,000 feet above sea level and observing it for two years to prove it was a good site for optical and infrared astronomy.

“It was not an easy job,” Cowsik says of finding the land and eventually building the Indian Astronomical Observatory. “You don’t have access there; there are no roads, there are no people. That’s why it’s a dark and wonderful site for optical astronomy.”

Cowsik says the 2-meter telescope at Hanle fills the wide gap in observational facilities that existed in that part of the world from the Canary Islands to Eastern Australia. The telescope, which can be operated by remote control at a facility near Bangalore, now allows continuous astronomical observations through international collaborations.

And researchers at WUSTL’s McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences in Arts & Sciences and at the IIA are setting up two telescopes, one at Hanle and the other in Arizona — nearly 180 degrees apart in longitude — for round-the-clock monitoring of active galactic nuclei.

WUSTL ties run deep

Like Berkeley’s Price, the late Robert M. Walker, Ph.D., former director of the McDonnell Center, also had heard Cowsik present at a conference and in 1975 invited him to serve as a distinguished visiting professor at the center.

Ramanath Cowsik

Family Wife, Sudha Cowsik, Ph.D., research scientist in the School of Medicine’s Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics; two sons, Siddhartha, 22, and Aditya, 7

Languages: Tamil, Hindi, Kannada, Sanskrit, English, German and French

Awards: Include India’s Padma Shri Award, equivalent to the U.S.’ National Medal of Science; Vikram Sarabhai Award in Space Sciences for “outstanding original research”; and S.S. Bhatnagar Award in Physical Sciences, India’s most prestigious science prize.

Interests: He used to dabble inpainting with oil and watercolors and in European and Israeli group dancing; enjoys travel, reading poetry, novels and mysteries, and listening to classical music and jazz.

That invitation began a 30-year relationship between Cowsik and the University, which was cemented in 2002 when he joined the physics faculty as a full professor.

“Since Ram Cowsik joined our faculty on a permanent basis, I have come to appreciate what a deep thinker he is on the big questions that puzzle us all — what is the ultimate nature of the universe, and what is the meaning of human existence in all this vastness?” says John W. Clark, Ph.D., the Wayman Crow Professor and chair of physics.

“I have also come to admire Ram for his personal qualities of nobility, kindness and humility. He truly is a gentleman in all of the most complementary meanings of that term.”

Cowsik, who is Hindu, has a deep interest in the relationship between science and religion, and he has given talks and written on the subject.

In an interview with Science & Theology News, he said, “That science contradicts religion is a concern of the West. My own feeling is that science and religion are complementary. Science and religion address slightly different kinds of questions, although both questions pertain to truth and reality.”

Solving the puzzle

It’s easy to see that Cowsik, who in April 2004 was inducted into the National Academy of Sciences, came by his interest in science naturally. Both his father and grandfather were electrical engineers; his father also had a master’s degree in physics.

Cowsik’s grandfather helped build Asia’s first hydroelectric project — circa 1905 — in Shivasamudram, India. At the time, it drew the longest transmission lines in the world.

Cowsik’s family moved frequently during his youth because of his father’s job of bringing electricity from town to town.

The constant uprooting didn’t seem to affect Cowsik’s studies, nor those of his four siblings: one brother became an electrical engineer, another is a mathematics professor at Bombay University who has proved some important theorems, including the Cowsik-Nori Theorem. A sister also holds a doctorate in physics and is working in robotics in upstate New York; another sister holds a doctorate in biology but is a patent lawyer in Bombay.

He credits his parents, both orphaned young, for his and his siblings’ success.

“These days I find parents are wanting their children to achieve and are putting great pressure on them,” Cowsik says. “My parents valued education, and they valued fine arts and music.

“And that’s how it happened. It was us just living up to their value system. Not through pressure or coaxing or anything of that sort. The influence was very gentle, very subtle.”

Cowsik fondly remembers from his youth his family’s fascination with puzzles.

“We all had a great interest in solving puzzles,” he says. “And we did not want to be told the answer to a puzzle. We wanted to figure the puzzle out for ourselves; figuring it out, that was the fun part of it.”

The nature of the universe is a puzzle Cowsik is still trying to solve, one particle at a time.