Saturday, April 13, 2024

The Passionate Dr. Peebles!



It is difficult to define the word passion. It is something that can only be defined through experience. 


Imagine an eighty-nine-year-old man, who has dedicated his life in pursuit of unravelling the mysteries of the universe and has reached the pinnacle of his profession, standing before a captivated audience. His words flow effortlessly for an hour, each sentence delivered with conviction and expertise. His body might have been frail but his fervor for the subject is such that he declares his readiness to continue for hours more. In that moment, it becomes clear to all present: “Passion is the inexhaustible fuel that drives excellence."


That is what passion is. But I do not have to imagine this scenario because I was part of the audience. The speaker was Dr. James Pebbles, the 2019 Nobel Prize winner in Physics and the occasion was ‘The Steven Weinberg Memorial Lecture’ at the University of Texas, Austin. 


Dr. Steven Weinberg was one of the foremost theoretical physicists and was the winner of the 1979 Nobel Prize in Physics. After stints in many of the leading universities in the US, he moved to University of Austin in 1982 and was instrumental in the setting up of the theoretical physics group at the university. He passed away in 2021 and to honor him the university established ‘The Steven Weinberg Memorial Lecture’ series. This lecture is held in the spring every other year and the speaker is awarded the Steven Weinberg Medal. 


The first of these lectures were held in March of 2022 and the speaker was Dr. Frank Wilczek, a colleague of Dr. Weinberg and a Nobel Laureate himself. The second lecture was by Dr. Peebles and was the one I was fortunate to attend. In this lecture, Dr. Peebles recounted his career, highlighting the key achievements.

Dr. Peebles was born in Canada and earned his bachelor’s degree in science from University of Manitoba. He moved to Princeton University to continue his education. He received his PhD in physics in 1962 under the mentorship of Dr. Robert Dicke and has remained there ever since. He is currently the Albert Einstein Professor in science and a Professor Emeritus at the university. 


In the 1960s, there was observational evidence that the galaxies were moving away from each other but Big Bang theory for the formation of the universe was not fully accepted. Dr. Dicke and his group worked on a theory that if the universe was expanding, then it must have been much smaller, denser, and hotter earlier. If that were the case, the thermal radiation from that time should be observable as background radiation. Dr. Dicke advised Dr. Peebles that he take up the research to theoretically prove this hypothesis while assigning the actual determination of this background radiation to others in the group. This became the lifelong mission of Dr. Peebles. 


While Dr. Peebles was engaged in his research at Princeton, in nearby Bell Labs, Penzias and Wilson discovered mysterious unexplainable noise while experimenting with a radio telescope. After hearing about Dr. Peebles’ work, they reached out with their findings. Their collaboration confirmed the hypothesis of Dr. Dicke’s group. Today we know it as Cosmic Background Radiation (CMB). This revolutionized our view of the universe and the branch of physics called Observational Cosmology. Dr. Peebles continued his research in the area and became a key architect in the field of Physical Cosmology. 


He continued to advance our understanding on the formation of universe with his many papers. He put forward the theory that galaxies would not have been able to form until the universe expanded and cooled enough. He wrote a paper on the effect of the temperature of the universe on the amount of Helium produced. He was able to prove with his theoretical calculations that known matter is only five percent of the content of the universe and the other ninety five percent comprised of dark matter and dark energy. Today each of his theories have been taken up for detailed research and have been instrumental in furthering our knowledge of the universe. 


Throughout his lecture, Dr. Peebles acknowledged the contributions of his mentors, his peers, and his students. To the students in the audience, he stressed that improving the known is as important is finding something totally new. The latter is a high-risk, high-reward game that is more attractive, but the former would provide the stability. He also encouraged them to devote a portion of their time to think out of the box. 


His lecture was laced with self-deprecatory humor and was presented in a way that everyone could understand. He explained the expansion of the universe akin to that of a balloon blown up and how the expansion would be seen from different spots on the surface of the balloon. To explain the importance of boundary conditions, he used two empty water bottles of different sizes and explained how blowing into them produced sounds of shorter and longer wavelengths and frequencies. 


It was heartening to see that the auditorium was full on a weekday afternoon. The audience was an eclectic group comprising of professors, students, and general public. And the lecture impressed everyone in the audience and elicited a standing ovation. 


My son is an astronomy student and has a specific interest in cosmic radiation. So, the work of Dr. Peebles was something closer home and to hear him say that there is much more to be done was reaffirming my son’s choice of study. I may not have understood everything but still, it was truly an inspiring lecture. I thank University of Austin for making the event accessible for general public. 

Congratulations Dr. Peebles on being conferred the Steven Weinberg Memorial Lecture medal. It was an honor to listen to you. 

  1. Faculty Page of Dr. Peebles -
  2. 2019 Nobel Prize in Physics Lecture -
  3. UT Austin – Weinberg Memorial Lecture -
  4. The inaugural Weinberg Memorial Lecture -

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

Deep in the heart of Texas!



When I lived in New Jersey, I used to attend all the concerts of TMK that happened in the area from Boston to DC. (Yes, fanboy, I know!)  During one tour of his, I would get to listen to him in Boston, New York, New Jersey, and DC, with one or two more concerts in Connecticut and Pennsylvania thrown in as well. After I moved to Texas, this list shrunk to Austin, Houston, and Dallas. This year, I was a bit disappointed that only two of these three cities are hosting a concert and depriving me a third of the pleasure of listening to him live. 

North America Tour Schedule

How has the tour been so far? Four of the ten concerts have been completed. I have been talking to fellow enthusiasts and this is what has happened. 


San Diego: This tour started with a concert that featured two violins and two mridangams. I heard a few snippets from the concert that the organizers had posted on Facebook, and it was wonderful. I could only imagine how the entire concert would have been.


Austin: I attended this wonderful concert and have written about it here -  


Boston: A friend of mine who was at the concert told me that it was a Kedaragowlai master class. That is one of my favorites and I hope one day I get hold of a recording of this concert just to listen to this. 


Toronto: This concert had some songs I love listening to such as Raave Himagiri, Sri Nathadi Guruguho, Soundararajam. Someone who attended this concert has written about it here - It is interesting that he has chosen to mention the sensitivity of Bhaskar and Sivaraman in accompanying and terming the performance as ‘Friends in Concert’, which is the same term I had used as well.


Next up is in Dallas. The team is going to perform in Dallas on April 14th. Being the Tamil New Year’s Day, I have a feeling that this concert is going to be something extra special.  I have my tickets booked and Insha Krishna, I should be there to listen to this concert in person. 

Here is the link to concert details -

I am looking forward to meeting fellow music enthusiasts from Dallas and having a great time.   


Monday, April 08, 2024

An Event of a Lifetime!


It was twilight. Birds were squawking and flying back to the trees. Dogs barked like crazy anticipating their evening stroll and dinner. Crickets started chirping. Streetlights and the front lights of houses came on, their light sensors triggered by the onset of darkness. The temperature dropped significantly. It could have been any evening, except that it was midday. It was the day of total solar eclipse. 

Solar eclipses are not a common occurrence, total solar eclipses more so. The last time a total solar eclipse occurred in Austin was in the year 1397, and the next one is not going to be till 2343. In other words, we can confidently say that no one who saw the last one is alive today, and no one alive today will be there for the next one. A solar eclipse is rare, truly the event of a lifetime. 


This solar eclipse is a rather special one, because there was an annular eclipse as a curtain raiser last October. Though it was only partial in Austin, the path of the annular eclipse was not too far from here. In fact, the path of these two eclipses overlap each other in a town a couple of hours west of Austin. These two eclipses coming one after the other created an unprecedented excitement among the public. 


Path of the Annular and Total Eclipses

The scientific community stoked the excitement through outreach events over the past many months. Personally, I had attended the STEM Girls Day in the University of Texas, Austin, as part of the Austin Astronomical Society, where we educated school kids about the eclipse and handed out over a thousand eclipse glasses. Bars hosted science trivia nights where I won a few goodie bags. There was even an eclipse themed stand-up comedy show. 


One particularly satisfying project was brought to Austin by Allyson Bieryla, Harvard University. The aim of the project is to get the Blind and Low Vision community experience solar eclipses by converting light into sound. The light intensity is converted into sound by the LightSound device and the change in intensity is depicted by a change in the musical tone. My daughter and I volunteered in assembling this units, which were then shipped across the country for use by the BLV community. 


I was also fortunate enough to be invited to talk about the eclipse with kids in a neighboring elementary school. I decided that I would use no technology and keep the session as a conversation. I am glad I held their attention the whole time. I was impressed by the knowledge they had and by their questions. I was glad that I had done enough homework before going in front of them and did not make a fool of myself. 

May be an image of 1 person, television and text
Sole use of tech was when a book was projected!


But the eclipse almost did not occur for us. The weather forecast predicted cloud coverage over most of central Texas, and in the last few days, there were predictions of rain right around the time of totality. The media stopped talking about how glorious the eclipse is going to be and began to discuss what would happen under a cloudy sky. The most expected event of the year was at the risk of literally being a damp squib. 


Our expectations were dialed down. The whole city was manifesting for some bit of the sky to clear to have a view of the eclipse. The day dawned with overcast skies. There were layers and layers of clouds. They were dark and thick and the possibility of seeing anything through them were remote. We braced ourselves for a disappointing day.  


Twas a cloudy day!


Then the universe decided to take pity on us. As the day progressed, a light wind started moving the clouds away. The eclipse started and the sun played hide and seek among the clouds. We were able to glimpse the first contact and then the moon starting to cover a part of the sun. Since our expectations were low, we were ecstatic even with the veiled view that we could get. 


Some Post Production Fun! 

Another look!

About fifteen minutes before totality, the clouds parted, and we had an unfettered view of the eclipse. We saw the sun reduced to just a crescent, Baily’s beads, the diamond ring and then totality. That was an amazing sight. It was then the birds went silent, the dogs stopped barking. The crickets chirped on merrily. It was surreal to see a twilight sky in the middle of the day. 


Totality! PC: My son Anshuman Garga

When the sun was completely covered, we could see the solar prominences. These are large loop like structures that extend from the surface of the sun. We could see Venus shining like a bright star. Jupiter was supposed to be visible, but it was behind the cloud cover. We tried looking for the Devil comet but could not see it. But for the small window, the sky was still overcast and so, we could not see a lot of stars. We felt the movement of the moon towards totality to be excruciatingly slow. But the totality did not last long enough, soon we saw third contact and the second diamond ring, and the journey of the moon across the sun continued. 

Solar Prominences! PC: Anshuman Garga

Diamond Ring! PC: Anshuman Garga


As more and more of the Sun became visible, the clouds started coming back as well. Even as the moon raced past the face of the sun, our visibility became less and less and soon enough we were left with just an overcast sky. And within an hour from the end of the eclipse we had a short but heavy rainfall. 

Ready for some rains!

It was as if nature did not want to disappoint us and gave us a window to watch the show it put up for us. And what a show it was! I had to forsake all technology at some point and just immerse myself into experiencing this wonderful phenomenon. I was speechless when I saw the milky way the first time, and when I saw the rings of Saturn, and Jupiter and its four big moons. I felt the same today during totality. It was just a mind-blowing experience. 

I just felt lucky and fortunate to witness this celestial spectacle and I thank all those who made this experience memorable. My emotions are definitely not something that I can ever recreate with words but I just wanted to share it with you all.  



Tuesday, April 02, 2024

Friends in Concert!

A team of thirteen incredibly talented musicians performed early this year under this moniker. I am shamelessly borrowing the name for a reason.
Three of those thirteen, T.M. Krishna, H.N. Bhaskar and B. Sivaraman are touring the US, performing all across the country. Their second concert of the tour was in Austin on the 30th of March.

The feeling I had throughout this concert was that the three artists came together to create music for themselves, and the audience just happened to be there. And that this concert was not a performance aimed to just please the audience. It felt as if three friends happened to be together and decided to have some fun.
Yes, it was a full house. Yes, the audience were enthralled. Yes, it was a magical performance. But none of this mattered. The three musicians were in their own world. And they created music. Each one was inspired by the other and the inspiration was evident in the reactions and responses they gave each other. Krishna, at one point, even requested the audience to refrain from applauding in the middle of a song.  And that is why I decided to call it ‘Friends in Concert’!


The concert started with a short but unhurried Alapanai in Shankarabharanam that set the tone for the evening. And it was followed by the composition of Thyagaraja ‘Endukku Peddala’. The camaraderie amongst the three was evident right from the start. Despite being the first song of the evening, the composition was accorded all the respect it deserved and was sung in an expansive manner with Swarams and Neraval. Bhaskar’s responses were on point and egged Krishna to delve more and more into the ragam. As Krishna explored the higher octaves, Sivaraman played softly to enhance the effect of the singing. The audience was spellbound.
A Mukhari Alapanai was next. After a short and sweet reply from Bhaskar, Krishna launched into the Ashtapadi ‘Vadasiyadi Kinchidapi’. I am of the opinion that Ashtapadis and many other songs which are traditionally sung at the end of concerts are very beautiful and at that time, there is not enough time to explore their musicality. Ashtapadi being the second song of the concert and in Mukhari was a musical treat for me and I lapped it up. The entire rendition was at such a leisurely pace that brought out the sublime beauty of the raga.
In an era when everything is fast and provided in a capsule, it took the team almost one full hour to render these two songs. It gave the audience also the space to understand and enjoy the musicality in these compositions. Krishna was so taken in by the Mukhari that he kept coming up with Mukhari phrases before he finally started ‘Makelara Vicharamu’ in Ravichandrika. The brisk Swarams sung and played for this song were mesmerizing.

Up next was a moving rendition of ‘Enneramum Undhan Sannidhiyile’ in Devagandhari that left many in the audience teary eyed. Krishna requested Bhaskar to lead the next piece and Bhaskar started with an Alapanai of mellifluous Dwijavanthi. When it was his turn, Krishna made this to be a Thanam and requested Bhaskar to change the ragam and make this a Ragamalika Thanam. The Thanam moved from Dwijavanthi to Mohanam to Mohana Kalyani before he ended it by traversing through the ragams in reverse order and finishing with Dwijavanthi.
A very elaborate ‘Ninnuvinaga Mari’ in Poorvi Kalyani was up next. Sivaraman got the chance to showcase his skills during this song and received thunderous applause for his efforts from the audience and from his compatriots on stage. A Kannada Shlokam (I am not sure of the lyrics and don’t want to butcher the words) in Ananda Bhairavi and Hamsadhwani, and the song “Thandhey Neevu Thaayee Neevu’ followed it.
He then sang ‘Nee Mattume’ in Kaapi. This is my favorite one from the Perumal Murugan and TMK partnership and every time I hear this song it just gets better. Needless to say, the crowd too lapped this one up. To conclude the concert, TMK first sang a verse by Acharya Vinoba Bhave, ‘Om Tat Sat’, a wonderful song that reinstates the existence of One God, by whatever name He is referred by. And very aptly followed it with Mahatma’s favorite poem ‘Vaishnava Janato’,  bringing the concert to a very serene finish.
For a moment there was complete silence before the packed hall stood up in unison and gave the artists a standing ovation. But they wanted more. As if a switch was turned on, everyone sat down again with an expectant look on their faces. Krishna was overwhelmed by the reaction and said he would sing one more short song.
A variety of composers were covered in the concert, but one conspicuous absence was that of my favorite, Dikshitar. He finally made a guest appearance of sorts with this bonus song. Krishna sang a Nottuswaram I had not heard before, ‘Kanchisham Ekamra Nayakam’! I wonder how a single person has managed to create such a corpus of musical wealth; I am always in awe of the man’s genius. This song had the crowd clapping in tune to the different speeds in which the song was sung.
Three hours flew by. Both the artists and the audience were ready for more. But the team had a flight early the next morning and hence the evening reluctantly came to an end. I know I am a fanboy but even discounting my apparent bias, this was one of the best concerts I have attended in Austin.
TMK’s students Tanmayee and Madhav provided support on Tampura and had the best seats to imbibe the magic that unfolded on stage. I would like to make a special mention about the trouble-free sound through the concert and appreciate the sound team at the venue for that.
This is the second time I am listening to TMK in Austin, in the last three years, thanks to ICMCA. My sincere thanks to them for arranging this concert. The next one in Texas is slated on April 14th in Dallas and I am looking forward to attending that. 

Insha Krishna!!

Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Basheer Ahmed Sayeed, Habibullah Badsha and the Madras Music Academy

I spend as much time listening to as many lecture demonstrations about Carnatic music as I spend listening to the music itself. I do not understand everything that is discussed but even the little I understand has helped me appreciate the music and its evolution better. There are two friends of mine, incidentally both named Shriram / Sriram, who entertain and educate us through their presentations. 

Violin Maestro R.K. Shriram Kumar tends to explain the nuances of the compositions and music of different composers, while historian V. Sriram brings to us the history associated with the music and history, in general. I have no qualms in saying that my understanding and appreciation of Carnatic music has been greatly enhanced by what these two and a few others have shared. Sriram has also penned a number of books relating to music and history. 


Because of the social circles I am in, I am exposed to the current controversy in the Carnatic music field even if I try to actively avoid it. And I had come across one of the many missives that are exchanged in which the executive committee was accused of exclusively brahmin. It triggered a memory of one of Sriram’s lecture. This lecture was about some of Chennai’s lawyers and their cultural influence. 


In that lecture Sriram talks about Justice Basheer Ahmed Sayeed. Born in Mylapore, Justice Sayeed was a man of many dimensions. In addition to being a judge of the Madras High Court, he was a member of the Madras Legislative Council and played an active role in the management of New College in Chennai. After a tiff with that college, he founded the South Indian Education Trust, popularly known as SIET and the trust to this day has played a major role in education. He was also a long-standing committee member and an office bearer in Madras Music Academy. He was the founder Vice President of the Academy.  Sriram mentions that he was the longest serving Vice President of the Academy and had a tenure that spanned almost fifty years.

Basheer Ahmed Sayeed

Justice Sayeed was instrumental in Music Academy acquiring the premises where its auditorium stands today. In 1945, when the search for land for the Academy was on, a small plot in Thiruvallikkeni was first identified. It was Justice Sayeed who pushed for the Academy to acquire a much larger, twenty-seven ground property to build its auditoriums. So, the very physical existence of the Academy is because of a Muslim office bearer. 


If it was Justice Sayeed who played his hand in the Academy acquiring this property, it was another eminent Muslim lawyer, Habibullah Badsha, who ensured that it remained with the Academy. During the late 1990s, there was a plethora of cases that were filed against the Academy threatening its very existence. It was the result of brilliant work done by Mr. Badsha in defending the Academy that it continued to function in its current form. He managed to prevent the taking over of the Academy by the Government and all the other cases against it disposed of. He too was a long-standing member of the executive committee and served as its Vice President as well. 


 Habibullah Badsha

I am aware of the role played by these two gentlemen and their contribution through the lectures of Sriram that I had listened to. Am sure that there would be many other hailing from the Muslim and Christian community who were part of the Academy at various times. 


A cursory look at the current committee does show that it is not made exclusively of people from the Brahmin community, as claimed in the missive. Even more so if one considers the advisory committee. But there is a lack of diversity, which is seems to be of recent origin and this goes to the root cause of the current controversy. Making Carnatic music available to everyone through active outreach, would create interest among the sections of the population where the current interest levels are low. Only through active outreach can the transformation happen in both the creative as well as the management side of this art and not just by token representations.   


  1. Sriram’s lecture, ‘Some Lawyers of Madras and their cultural influence’ -
  2. A blog about Music Academy’s home – ‘The story of Sweet Home’ -
  3. Biography of Habibullah Badsha – ‘When Mercy Seasons Justice’ -
  4. The composition of the current committee -