‘Dr Roopesh Ojha’ Astrophysicist for the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center joins Adwiti Subba Haffner in an EXCLUSIVE, in-depth and riveting interview.
So you have heard about Dr.Roopesh Ojha the NASA Scientist who is working with his team, which many physicists believe, that the discovery that they have made holds the key to understanding parts of the universe that remain hidden from us.
But enough about that!
Now let’s get to know Roopesh Da, St Joseph’s School boy from Darjeeling. This interview will give you an in-depth look into the heart of a “mad” Scientist.
Read on and learn about how a small spelling mistake made him an Astronomer, how he tears up when he talks about our Darjeeling hills, what his motto is, who inspired him and made him who he is today. His favorite Gorkhali food (big surprise), the musical instruments he plays, his views on Gorkhaland, his vision for Darjeeling and a personal message for the youth.
I promise you, everyone who reads this interview will leave the richer, the wealthier, the humbler. Turn off distractions now. Let us journey with him all the way back to Himalayan Nursery School and all the way forward to a simple explanation of his stunning discovery. Let us be dazzled by his spirit!
Adwiti : Dr. Ojha, the entire Darjeeling community would like to congratulate you through DT and TheDC for your recent discovery which could lead to a new era in Astrophysics! We are extremely proud of you.
Dr. Ojha: Thank you so very much. The support, love, encouragement and the acknowledgement of my hometown is greatly appreciated.
Adwiti: When the word NASA is mentioned, we start seeing images of outer space, asteroids, extremely intelligent scientists, the solar system, going to the moon, Hollywood movies that make it even more far reaching (literally and figuratively) and here you are from a small town Darjeeling, making a discovery that will potentially change the way we look at the Universe. How does it feel?
Dr. Ojha: I must say, the whole experience is truly surreal! I have to pinch myself regularly to make sure I am not dreaming. I decided to become an Astrophysicist when I was five years old, can you believe that? It has been a long time coming! I also feel that it is such a great privilege to be able to do something that I am so passionate about, in such a large scale. I have to admit there is always a certain level of uncertainty and disbelief that lurks in the back of my mind.
Adwiti : Why the uncertainty?
Dr. Ojha: Everything can change in a split second, like for example an asteroid could shatter the satellite that we are designing right now. I had the privilege of writing the science case for it. It’s a long, expensive process. We received $4 million dollars to study and build a prototype and test it. And yesterday at the MDL – coincidentally, was the first time where all the engineering team broke down everything into sub-sections and we basically saw our first real design of this satellite. It was a bit like seeing our child’s first sonogram. But like the way it happened to the Japanese satellite HITOMI, within seconds an asteroid, a loose screw from another satellite can destroy it.
Adwiti: You said have been dreaming about NASA since you were a child, five years of age. How was it growing up In Darjeeling?
Dr. Ojha: It was one of the most beautiful and enriching times of my life. I would never be the person I am if it had not been for the childhood that I had in Darjeeling. I would never trade anything for my upbringing, and the way I was raised, I must say, I grew up with a lot of love, support and closeness with the family within the community.
Earliest memories are of walking up the winding path to Himalayan Nursery School presided over by the kindly Mrs Norbhu. Of the incredibly patient Ms Vimla who did not scold me even when I spilt my lunch milk all over her – I don’t know what she did, she might have had to go home to change! I remember watching with fear the great flames shooting up and the thin lines of water trying to control them in the devastating fire of 1971 which changed the face of Darjeeling. Of learning to tell time by looking at the clock on the Capital Hall. We used to first live on Nehru Road (next to Liang’s, a few shops away from Keventer’s) before moving to the Doctor’s Quarters in Eden Hospital. At different times I went to NP by school bus, taxi and on foot. Isn’t that a lovely, lovely walk? I feel like I can remember every inch of the way even though there are a lot of new structures along the way now.
I used to be very quiet and introverted for most of my school years but I always had a close circle of friends with whom I was at ease.
Darjeeling is a safe town for children and after school we did a lot of ‘exploring’ both of the hills, valleys and the chor batos around us… Mahakal was a particular favorite, it had much fewer structures then and imaginary.
On the physical side, cuts, bruises and stinging sisnu were constant companions. On the imaginary side, I can remember one meeting of our little group where we actually made a list of all the things we wanted to build. The list included everything from cars to a rocket to go to the Moon. The weird thing was that even though we must have known we were just pretending, at another level, we were really serious. We did find out a lot about how cars are made and rockets as well. In that sense, I envy my children who have access to more stuff they can actually build. You should see what our basement looks like!
It was as I was finishing NP that I got involved in extempore and when I moved to Mount Hermon debating (thank you Mr Lewis) that I started to emerge from my shell. I continued debating in Government College where I also had the good fortune to meet some of the people who remain my closest friends. It was quite challenging doing Physics Honours at GC and I would never have made it without the close support of my friends and the heroic efforts of Prof Chakraborty.
It was very difficult to leave Darjeeling and head for Pune, lovely place as that is. There is a reason why the many sons and daughters of Darjeeling scattered around the globe continue to be drawn to the place. To this day, whether it is the train to NJP, a bus to Siliguri, or a flight to Bagdogra, my pulse quickens as we approach. The first sight of the hills, the shifting of gears as we start climbing, the first wisp of fog that inevitably greets us and I feel a deep sense of peace and contentment. I am home.
Adwiti : “Most people say that it is the intellect which makes a great scientist. They are wrong: it is character.” Albert Einstein . Can you please share with us the relationship you had with your parents and what advice they gave you that stuck and made you the person you are today?
Dr. Ojha: We were a very close knit family. We talked about everything. There was a lot of support, encouragement and positive reinforcement from my parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. The ability to talk openly and express disagreement without being disagreeable is so essential to what I do. None of what I do can be done by one person or even a few people. There are always a lot of specialists who need to work smoothly with each other.
No doubt my elders were strict with me. But the strictness was extremely fair and justified and it was always very clear what they were trying to convey. Contrary to popular belief, I find that most children don’t want to rebel. They long for the appreciation of their elders. It is up to the elders to be clear about what is expected and to provide direction.
My mother’s father, nana used to literally tell me “ If you want to study, I will even sell the skin off my back, if that is what it takes.” That kind of information at the highly impressionable age of four or five can make a huge impact in one’s life. It was a very powerful message in my formative years.
There were a couple sayings that come from some scriptures in Sanskrit that were drilled into my psyche.
1. Knowledge is the only kind of wealth no one can steal from you. You could lose everything but you will never lose your knowledge.
2. It’s the only kind of wealth that actually increases when you give it away.
My parents frequently used to say “Don’t ever be a “kala chor” (कला चोर – knowledge thief). If you know something it is your obligation to share it with the world.”
It is human nature, I suppose, that we find it easier to focus on individuals but in reality, it seems to me that there is little that any individual can do by themselves. The ‘self-made man’ is a myth.
The very famous quote by Sir Isaac Newton comes to mind “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.” This saying is always true. My parents, my grand-parents and my teachers, they are my giants.
An easy life is a myth. No one has an easy life. All of us will face times of great difficulty and sorrow. All the giants in my life gave me the gift of deep self-confidence and self-belief which let me work through such times and dare to dream big. Till a couple of years ago my mother who was also my best friend (she was only 20 years older than me) was part of everything I did. I still feel her steely determination inside me whenever a challenge comes up.
One last thing that I would like to mention is honesty. No one can be a good scientist without being rigidly, uncompromisingly honest. You always have to record what you find even if it smashes your pet theory to pieces. You always have to look at every conclusion you arrive at with the deepest skepticism even if it causes you great inconvenience. Nature may not be malicious but she is definitely subtle. In many ways, the key thing about being a scientist is to understand the limits of your knowledge.
Adwiti: Talking about growing up in our highly romanticized hometown, Darjeeling is also known for our love for music. Besides studying and having your mind occupied with Astrophysics, what extracurricular activities did you enjoy?
Dr. Ojha : I started learning the tabla, which I still play. There were two people who played the tabla really well. One is Sri Ratna Tuladhar ji (who is still around). Tuladhar ji was very close to my father, he actually introduced my father to tabla. My father also played the tabla. Actually Sri Ratna Tuladhar ji brought the tabla home one day and asked my father to try it out. He used to play Dholak with my grandfather. So I used to call Tuladhar ji Tablawala baba.
I learned tabla from Mr Fakira Ram from about the age of 12. He was extraordinarily patient with me. Learning an instrument is a long term thing and it needed both him and my mother’s encouragement for me to stick to it through the early years (when you sound horrible) and till I started sounding decent.
Besides music, I read a lot (thank you NP and MH libraries and Oxford and all the wonderful people who gave me books on my birthdays). We were always walking everywhere but thanks to HMI we graduated to longer hikes, a passion that has stayed with me — just a week ago we hiked up to the crater rim on La Palma in the Canary Islands. Looking at the equipment I now have access to, our equipment in Darjeeling was very basic but it did not get in the way of some of my happiest days out with nature.
Adwiti : What kind of music do you listen to now Roopeshda? (At this point…I was compelled to drop the Dr. formality and talk to him like our Darjeeling Da).
Dr. Ojha: That is one great gift of growing up in Darj – the exposure to so many kinds of music. So I grew up listening to everything from Bollywood to Gorkhali (both folk songs as well as more formal songs) to Bhojpuri folk songs. Due to the strong interest of my parents we had early exposure to Hindustani Classical. I got interested in Western music, pop and classical, relatively late, only in my teens. Today I like all these genres and rotate between them. Traveling has exposed me to other interesting genres and sub-genres e.g. I really like bluegrass and ‘old time’ music from here in the US.
I want to share a really funny story during my travels.
Adwiti : Please do. Humour is always welcome as you know.
Dr. Ojha: I was flying back from Chile (he pronounces it just perfectly, with that slight emphasis in the “e”). It was as usual a very tiring flight and I was trying to catch up on some sleep. Suddenly the Pilot announced an Emergency landing. The place where we landed was in the port city of Guayaquil, Ecuador. The airport was like our old Bagdogra airport and in the middle of the night, in this weird turn of events, the music that was blaring from the PA system when we disembarked was “Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram”. It was unbelievable, like a bizarre dream.
Adwiti: So speaking of dreams, I cannot wait to hear the fascinating tale about how a five year old boy studying in Himalayan Nursery in Darjeeling, decided to become a NASA Scientist.
Dr. Ojha : I must agree that there is a fascinating twist to the tale.
I remember one evening hearing voices in the drawing room of my house. I walked in and saw a gentleman staring intensely into my uncle, Mr’s Ojha’s palm. I asked my mother what he was doing. She said he was reading Mr.Ojha’s future by studying the palm and lines of his hand. Intrigued I asked what it was called, “Astrology” she said.
By five I was reading and writing quite fluently, so naturally I frequented our local bookstore, Oxford quite often by myself. I picked out books and the bill would be sent to my parents at the end of the month. Filled with curiosity I went to Oxford the next day to learn more about Astrology and found just the book I was looking for!
Only, I misspelled it a little and brought home the most fascinating volume of all times- the one that opened my life to a brand new awareness and ambition.
“ASTRONOMY” by Ian Nichols.
It was loaded with astounding images of the Universe. I was completely hooked. You can say I decided to become an astronomer because of a spelling mistake.
My little mind and heart was on fire. I obsessively asked everybody what I needed to do to become an Astronomer. But in Darjeeling there is nobody doing Astronomy, not even now. I actually did not meet a professional astronomer until I went to Pune, when I was 21. But the one thing that everybody advised me was that if I wanted to be an astronomer I had to be good at Math and Physics.
Adwiti: How did you keep this dream of being a NASA scientist alive? At that time Darjeeling was a pretty isolated place.
Dr. Ojha: I guess it was a combination of factors. The only obstacle that I frequently faced was the inaccessibility or the lack of communication but with the advent of the Internet now it is not a problem anymore.
My parents and grandparents at home were incredibly supportive as you know. If I sought anything related to education my parents would do everything to provide that for me. When I started BSc honors in Darjeeling Govt College, I desperately needed a text book to study Vector Calculus. None of the book stores in Darjeeling had it. My father called a relative in Siliguri with no luck. Eventually we found the book in Kolkotta. Kolkotta bata (From Kolkotta) someone sent this poorly written text book (which I still have in Darjeeling) but we had no choice. So I shared it with the whole class.
My teachers always fueled my ambition and drive. And of course Books! Books and Books!
Adwiti: Could you please enlighten us a little bit about your teachers and how they impacted your life and career?
Dr. Ojha: Of course. Of course. I am glad you asked this question. I had the benefit of being taught by some extremely skillful and principled teachers. Some of the most influential and dedicated among them were Mrs Norbu, Ms Vimla Chakraborty, Ms Lekha Venkat, Mr Bernard Santiago, Mr Peter Barry, Father German, Mr John LeFevre, Mr John West, Mr M. Choudhary, Mr Maurice Banerjee, Mr Jack Vaz, Mr George Fernandez, Rev. J. Johnston, Mr J. Gardner, Mrs Dam and Prof Nripati.
I specifically recollect Mr. John LeFevre saying to me “Roopesh, you have a lot of potential. I believe you can do what you are aiming for.” I had no idea where he was getting that from. Teachers like that had no obvious motive all they were doing was being encouraging and inspiring… What I would do to have a cuppa with him today.
Then there was my beloved history teacher, the legendary Mr Jack Vaz who I credit for teaching me how to think like a scientist. He always had a map on the wall that had three pieces of the puzzle:
1. The cause of the incident
2. The effects of the cause.
3. And (most importantly) the skepticism that was needed to come to a conclusion.
Mr. Vaz had the personality and the ability to convey this kind of thinking, and that lies in the heart of being a scientist. I am forever grateful for the positive learning environment Darjeeling provided me with.
Adwiti: You were in college during the mid-eighties when the Gorkhaland movement for a separate state was started, with all that conflict around you, how were you able to go to college and succeed?
Dr. Ojha : Cannot deny it was very hard to see our hometown go through this agitation. It was so depressing. I remember walking to Government College and seeing houses in flames across the valley, Bijanbaree. It was a very sad moment for me.
I will have to put this experience under the context of challenges, because that was one big early challenge and it shaped me tremendously. Life is tough, and if you want to do something beyond simply surviving, then you have to develop this ability to block other things out, like Arjun did with his target (Story of Arjuna and Drona in Mahabharat).
Not to ever say that I didn’t feel for my town and for the people that were killed, but these circumstances were totally out of my control. I wanted to contribute to Darjeeling and the only way I could, was by being focused on my education.
Adwiti : What are your views on our current Gorkhaland crisis?
Dr. Ojha: I want to be clear that when people are asking for changes in Darjeeling, many of these ideas are extremely good and I do believe that there are lots of things that our people in the hills need and should get, but no denying, the saddest part was the violence.
Bengal? Well there is so much corruption in our whole country… It is always a little bit embarrassing. India is always 90th or 95th when as a nation we have the potential to be on the top ten.
Adwiti : You seem to so love Darjeeling just as much I do.
Dr. Ojha: Yes..when I see our Darjeeling hills from Sukhna (his eyes moistened, he choked up a little and had to stop and take a drink ). I hope this answered your question.
Adwiti : What do you miss about Darjeeling the most? The mist, the mountains, the tea?
Dr. Ojha: THE PEOPLE! The people I know, the people I don’t know. And then after that of course I love walking around Mall Road and staring at Kanchenjunga for hours.
Adwiti: I understand. I am sure you miss our home food too?
Dr. Ojha : This is a very good question! We were vegetarians and I miss those scrumptious juicy Veggie Momos, Sel Rotis, Dalley khorsani…. Now I have even taught my children, when they go to Darjeeling they look for Dalley, Rato aloo dum, LC ko mathi badi ko special. When I go to Darjeeling I still go and have that “special”.
Adwiti: So now we have walked around the mall, we have eaten Badi ko special aloo dum and we have misspelled words that changed the trajectory of your life at five years old. Could you please start by explaining to us what a neutrino is in simple layman’s terms and how it is a game changer?
Dr. Ojha: For the first time ever we have been able to identify where one of the highest energy neutrinos ever detected was born.
All our knowledge of the Universe has come from studying various kinds of light — optical first because that kind of light passes unhindered through the atmosphere and we can see it with our naked eyes. About 400 years ago people invented the optical telescope which increased our ability to see fainter objects and also smaller details.
Then came radio in the early 20th century as that technology was invented. Pretty much all other types of light are blocked by our atmosphere (this is a good thing from the perspective of life since higher energy light like X-rays and gamma-rays would kill us if the atmosphere was not acting as a shield). Thus all other kinds of astronomy had to wait till we learned how to put instruments on satellites and put them above the atmosphere.
I currently work for one such satellite the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Neutrinos are a game-changer because they are not a form of light. It is as if we acquired a new sense with which to learn about the Universe. The reason it took so long to detect neutrinos is that they very rarely interact with anything (think of them as snobs who won’t talk to anyone).
However, this difficulty in detecting them also means that whatever information they are carrying is pure and untouched. For example if you want to learn about what is going on in the center of our Sun, using light is difficult because a photon particle of light takes 2 million years to travel from the center of the Sun to its surface and by the time it gets to the surface it has suffered so many collisions that whatever information it was carrying is lost.
A neutrino, however, does not collide with anything and takes just 2 seconds to get from the center to the surface. Thus if you can somehow manage to detect it, it can tell you in a very clean way what is going on in the center of the Sun. A hard to catch but a very clear messenger.
Adwiti : Could you please share with us why the world is celebrating your discovery and how it happened ?
Dr. Ojha : Let me begin by stressing that this discovery is the result of work by many many smart and dedicated people – the folks who spent years building The IceCube (without which there would be no ‘BigBird’ neutrino to study), the folks who built and operate the array of satellites and ground based telescopes that made all the ‘light’ observations and the theoreticians and dreamers who have tried and continue to try to make sense of it all. Closer to home, I would like to express my deep gratitude to my TANAMI team of researchers who have produced this fascinating result we are talking about.
I work for a satellite called Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. It observes the most energetic form of light which is called Gamma-rays. We do one week duty shifts where we are watching the output of Fermi, in other words what is happening in the Gamma-ray sky. Back in 2012 I was looking at the data with my then student, Michael Dutka. We saw this one blazar which had a flare up.
We are in a galaxy called the Milky way, hamro (our) galaxy is what we call a quiet galaxy, “quiescent” galaxy, which means that almost all the light you see in our Galaxy is just produced by stars.
Blazars, on the other hand, are ‘active’ galaxies and what they have at the center is a Gigantic black hole (can weigh about a billion times as much as our Sun) which produces an almost unimaginable amount of light and lots of other weird effects. One thing that can happen in a blazar is the creation of a pair of ‘jets’ of matter moving almost at the speed of light pointing more or less in the direction of earth. I study blazars and blazars emit all kinds of light (and perhaps other particles such as neutrinos). Before we built the Fermi satellite, we couldn’t study the most energetic light. So now is a very exciting time to be studying blazars.
So I was on duty and I noticed that there was this one blazar, named PKS1424-48 we noticed that it got extremely bright in gamma-rays. It went up not by a few percent or even a few tens of percent but by 15 to 30 times its usual brightness. With Prof Kadler, I lead a program called TANAMI. It studies blazars using telescopes observing all kinds of light. When we saw this in gamma-rays, we immediately activated our other telescope. There was clearly something really weird going on and we wanted to observe it. Not because we knew about the neutrino but because something crazy was going on in the blazar. Later it turned out that IceCube detected a neutrino at the same time. So when we heard that announcement, we already had the information we needed.
We took all of the observations and we used a physical model and made our calculations. To our delight we found out that one model could plausibly create a particle of this energy! The last step in this story is about skepticism. Could it just be by chance? We can calculate that and found out that there could be a 5% chance that it could be by chance. For the first time ever being able to show that, that is where the neutrino came from.
The great contribution of our TANAMI team is that we may have discovered where they are coming from. We might have figured out the home of this neutrino… Kaha bata aayo… Where were they born? Finding out where they come from tells us how they were created. Which is this huge question. Neutrino telescopes have bad vision. They are not able to pinpoint the origin of BigBird. With our observations we can pin it down to one blazar.
Adwiti : Why is that important?
Dr. Ojha : It is important because it tells us how this incredibly energetic neutrino could have been produced. It tells us which of the competing theories is correct. And in doing so, it is helping us close in on the mysteries surrounding these amazing objects, blazars.
Adwiti : How is this going to affect our daily lives? How can this help us?
Dr. Ojha: The biggest potential for me here is the following: let me ask you this question, suppose you were born without one of your senses. Let’s pretend that you were born without the ability to hear, and then suddenly today you could hear a new sense magically appeared. It would take you a while to figure it out. Neutrino astronomy is just like that, the new sense. So far every activity humanity has done with the Universe has been due to one sense and that is light. People will look back to this generation and they will envy us for the following reason: we are the generation of humanity that made the transition from only having one source to study the Universe which is light to acquiring three senses because not only are neutrinos a second sense to humanity, the recent discovery of gravitational waves gives is a third one – but that is another story. We are helping exploit the second sense and that is the deeper significance of this discovery. So there is this great potential to discover more about the Universe in ways that we cannot even imagine right now.
Adwiti : Who inspires you?
Dr. Ojha: I admire smart people who work hard. I love people who get really interested in something and then they really put in the effort.
People like my tabla teacher, Fakir Ram. I love these type of people. People like him inspire me because they are never looking for publicity, they are never looking for attention, just interested in something for its own sake.
I admire very much all the people in my life who have been so selfless. Random people.
You know, my big break was going to Pune University and that was quite a step, so there was period in my life where I just had to find out for myself where I was supposed to go to study. So I was travelling by bus, going to Ranchi, Madras, Bangalore just trying to get information and in that phase I am amazed by the number of complete strangers who helped me.
I remember once I was travelling from Madras to Bangalore. The guy sitting next to me started talking to me and the next thing I know he was driving me to the Indian Institute of Science and I spent a night at his place but the interesting thing is that I never saw him again. This is a pure act of selflessness. Hokee haina? He was not expecting anything from me. He just saw a young guy who was trying to do something and was willing to help him. Many of the people who inspire me are often anonymous.
Adwiti : But often the way you are treated comes from your own attitude and behavior too?
Dr. Ojha: Another old saying in Hindi hoina? bhes dhekhera bheek paucha. (you will receive alms by the way you look) If you look aggressive or annoying or scary or have an attitude, for sure no one will help you.
You will laugh but guess what I am about to do now? My children go to a dance-school, they do Kathak and tomorrow they have their annual concert and I am the MC but I didn’t know I was the MC till yesterday. So I have to quickly go and figure out what the program is and what I am supposed to say.
Adwiti : What advice do you have for the Youth of our region?
Adwiti : What is your vision or hope for Darjeeling?
Dr. Ojha: Keeping the good things we have: a culture of warmth and openness, fantastic natural beauty, respect for learning. And working on the logistics that we need, good health care, reliable communications (including roads), better institutions of higher education, so we can create an economy with great jobs so we don’t have to leave
In my vision, people would come to Darjeeling for higher education the way they come for our schools. People would come to Darjeeling for advanced medical procedures instead of traveling to big cities. People would come to Darjeeling to set up high tech factories and laboratories. Think of all the talented people from our area making waves all over the place and I am sure you will agree that this is possible.
[We are MOST THANKFUL to Ms. Manju Rai for helping us connect to Dr. Roopesh]
I cannot emphasize enough how touched I was doing this interview with Dr. Roopesh Ojha. His enthusiasm to share his knowledge, his generosity of his time and the fact that he still has inflections in his speech like “haina,” “ho,” “kyata”… and yet in that mind of his, resides a genius that is now changing the world and the way we look at it.
And in the midst of all his professional success, Dr. Ojha has not forgotten his hometown – Darjeeling. . In fact I will let you in on a secret, we were both teary eyed a few times during the interview. And if I didn’t know he was a NASA Scientist, I would quickly recognize him as a Darjeeling boy who has traveled the world, who has accomplished great things in his journey but that his heart still belongs to the cool spring breeze, the fragrance of the rhododendrons, and the powerful Thunderbolt of our Darjeeling.
We wish you tremendous success and we are so proud of the fact that you are making history! I dedicate this verse to you Roopesh Da!
“Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the Milkyway,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought: “
– Daffodils by William Wordsworth