Indian-American Astronomer Shrinivas Kulkarni Wins Prestigious Shaw Prize

Shrinivas R Kulkarni
Preeti Bali / 6:45 am / May 23, 2024

Shrinivas Kulkarni, a renowned astronomer of Indian origin based at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), has been conferred the 2024 Shaw Prize in Astronomy. The announcement, made by the Shaw Prize Foundation in Hong Kong, celebrates Kulkarni’s groundbreaking contributions to the field of time-domain astronomy, particularly his work on rapidly changing celestial objects.

A Trailblazer in Time-Domain Research

Kulkarni’s research has focused on understanding some of the most dynamic phenomena in the universe, including millisecond pulsars, gamma-ray bursts, and supernovae. These fleeting events pose a significant challenge for astronomers, requiring meticulous analysis of vast datasets to identify rare occurrences and distinguish them from unrelated phenomena.

Kulkarni’s leadership in constructing and utilizing groundbreaking telescopes like the Palomar Transient Factory and its successor, the Zwicky Transient Facility, has revolutionized our understanding of the ever-changing optical sky. These facilities have enabled rapid detection and notification of transient events, allowing for crucial follow-up observations by other telescopes around the world.

A Legacy of Discovery

A defining moment in Kulkarni’s career was the co-discovery of the first millisecond pulsar, a rapidly rotating neutron star emitting extremely precise pulses at a staggering rate of over 600 per second. Pulsars, with their remarkable stability, serve as the universe’s most accurate clocks. They play a vital role in testing Einstein’s theory of relativity and searching for gravitational waves from colliding supermassive black holes.

Kulkarni’s research also played a pivotal role in determining the origin of gamma-ray bursts. In 1997, he and his collaborators made a groundbreaking discovery by calculating the distance to a gamma-ray burst, revealing its source to be located in the distant universe, far beyond our own galaxy. This finding confirmed the immense energy released during these explosive events.

Beyond Recognition: A Champion of Open Science

The Shaw Prize, often referred to as the “Nobel of the East,” carries a prestigious cash award of $1.2 million. The award ceremony will be held in Hong Kong later this year.

Beyond his research achievements, Kulkarni is recognized for his dedication to open science. He has consistently advocated for making astronomical data collected through his telescopes readily available to researchers worldwide, fostering collaboration and advancements in the field.

From Humble Beginnings to Astronomical Heights

Born in Kurundwad, Maharashtra, and raised in Hubli, Karnataka, Kulkarni’s journey began in India. After completing his Master’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, he pursued his PhD in the United States at the University of California. He has also served as the director of Caltech’s Optical Observatory, demonstrating his leadership within the astronomical community.

The Shaw Prize selection committee, under the chairmanship of Scott Tremaine, commended Kulkarni not just for his scientific breakthroughs but also for his commitment to democratizing astronomy through open data access. This spirit of collaboration underscores the impact of Kulkarni’s work, ensuring that his discoveries continue to propel astronomical understanding for years to come.

More Stories