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Indian-origin Caltech scientist wins Shaw Prize in astronomy

Brother of author and philanthropist Sudha Murty, Kulkarni is a professor at Caltech

Indian-origin Caltech scientist wins Shaw Prize in astronomy
[Source photo: Chris S. Flynn]

Indian-origin scientist Shrinivas R Kulkarni was awarded the prestigious 2024 Shaw Prize in astronomy for his discoveries about millisecond pulsars, gamma-ray bursts, supernovae, and other variable or transient astronomical objects.

Brother of Infosys co-founder Narayan Murthy’s wife and philanthropist Sudha Murty, Kulkarni is a professor at the division of physics, mathematics, and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), USA. 

“His contributions to time-domain astronomy culminated in the conception, construction and leadership of the Palomar Transient Factory (PTF) and its successor, the Zwicky Transient Facility (ZTF), which have revolutionized our understanding of the time-variable optical sky,” said The Shaw Prize Foundation. 

“Throughout his career, Kulkarni has made a sustained series of fundamental discoveries in time-domain optical and radio astronomy,” the foundation added. 

Notably, during his student years, Kulkarni and his colleagues were the first to identify a millisecond pulsar. An incredibly fast-spinning neutron star, the millisecond pulsar emitted highly accurate pulses more than 600 times per second. 

Since then, hundreds of millisecond pulsars have been found and they hold the title of the most accurate clocks in the universe and are an essential if one is to test the theory of general relativity proposed by Albert Einstein, and also for searching gravitational waves that come out of merging supermassive black holes. 

In 1997, Kulkarni and team made a major breakthrough in understanding gamma-ray bursts. Successfully measuring the distance to one such burst, the team revealed that it originated far outside our Milky Way galaxy, which implied that the burst must have released a great amount of energy. This discovery paved the way for our current understanding that most gamma-ray bursts stem from great cosmic distances. 

The two novel astronomical surveys, PTF and ZTF, the construction of which was only possible due to Kulkarni’s contributions, have provided data that has aided in the discovery of a variety of astronomical transients and variable sources, according to the foundation. 

“This award is also intended to recognise Kulkarni’s discoveries in other areas of stellar astronomy, in particular his role in the discovery of one of the first “brown dwarfs” — stars so small that they cannot burn hydrogen by nuclear fusion,” the foundation added.

Also recognized by The Shaw Foundation this year were US scientists Peter Sarnak for his contribution to mathematical sciences and the team of Swee Lay Thein and Stuart Orkin for their contribution to life science and medicine. 

The Shaw Prize, presented first in 2004, has awarded these three distinct fieldsastronomy, life science, and medicineeach year and since 2016, each winner has received a monetary prize of $1.2 million.

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