'Stick with Science'

Germany-based Mumbai boy, space scientist Dr Chaitanya Giri speaks about his involvement in the Rosetta Mission, going to Mars, India’s space program and the importance of being a stayer while on a visit to the city

On a humid weekend afternoon, Matunga sees a swarm of students, loitering around or meandering into the numerous small restaurants around colleges located in the area.

Dr Chaitanya Giri points to his place in the college classroom. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi
Dr Chaitanya Giri points to his place in the college classroom. Pic/Sayed Sameer Abedi

A young man Dr Chaitanya Giri, considerably more formally attired than the jeans and T-shirt wearing college students, makes his way to Ramnarain Ruia College gate.

Rosetta probe and Comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. 3D render
Rosetta probe and Comet 67P Churyumov-Gerasimenko. 3D render

This space scientist, a Germany-based alumnus of the college, is in the city to get an award at the college. The Ruia College Alumni Association (RCAA) honours past students of Ramnarain Ruia College who have excelled in their careers as part of the ‘Jewel of Ruia’ function.

This year, the college had a new category called ‘Rising Stars’ for persons who are on their way to stardom in their careers. A ‘Rising Star’ would typically be someone less than 40 years of age. Dr Chaitanya Giri was being awarded in this particular category. Chaitanya studied at Ruia College from 2005 through 2008. He did his Ph.D.

with distinction (Tres Honorable) from the University of Nice Sophia-Antipolis, France and from the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research for his work on the robotic lander Philae that accompanied the Rosetta Space Mission. Today. Chaitanya is doing his post-doctoral research fellowship on a Max Planck Society grant in support of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta Mission.

Coming home
Says Chaitanya with a smile, “I now live in GÖttingen in Germany, a small University town. I come down annually to Mumbai to meet my family in Borivali, this time though, I am here, back in college.”

It is nostalgia time for the scientist, who smiles as he sees the majestic sweep of the staircase of the college, hears the banter of students outside the gates, debating fiercely whether to eat a dosa or Manchurian noodles and of course, the place he is most nostalgic about, “the Chemistry laboratory,” he laughs.

We sit in the Chemistry classroom for this particular interview. “I remember this classroom very vividly,” he says with a grin. “I was a backbencher,” Chaitanya adds, pointing to the back rows. “I did not bunk lectures but I used to be late to class.

I recall taking the train from my home in Borivali then changing from Western to Central despite being late at times. The teachers used to love me…” The young man speaks crisp Marathi as he slides onto a wooden bench, exclaiming, “thithe basu yaa kaay?” (should we sit there?) and then adds wryly, “I used to be smaller.”

Though a couple of years away from home have not affected his command of Marathi, he is yet to learn German. “No time,” he says. “I do understand the language and can converse in stores though,” says Chaitanya, who has to eke out the time from a challenging schedule to learn the lingo formally.

When asked to explain what is post-doctoral research he says, “In post-doctoral research, there is no guide, it is the first step to independent research.”

The Rosetta Mission
Talking specifically of the Rosetta mission and the Philae Lander, (See box: About Rosetta) he says, “The first 48 hours after the Philae Lander landed were crucial. We always anticipated that the batteries will run out. This was not an accident.

We are analysing the data of that first 48 hours.” The world is looking at the Philae’s solar batteries reviving by mid-2015, with Chaitanya positive that this will happen. “We will once again get a set of measurements by mid-year.”

Rosetta may be a little removed from the Indian consciousness, but it is Mangalyaan India’s orbiter to Mars, that Chaitanya is asked about quite often. He says “We need to reach Mars with a larger set of instrumentation. How do we land on Mars, I think that would be next on the agenda for the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).”

Chaitanya says that the short time, “The project was sanctioned in 2010-2011” between the sanction and the launch was a, “huge factor in the low cost of the Mangalyaan mission.” When talking about Mars, the inevitable layperson’s question, when if ever, will we be able to visit Mars? “I cannot give any timespan but I would be able to say that this is a place for possible human habitation, maybe in 50 years.”

Asked about an opinion on space tourism, the question elicits a laugh from Chaitanya, who says it is a “Good way of making money and one of the facets in the genesis of the next generation of Space Economics.”

India and Mars
Chaitanya also works for the Gateway Institute, a Mumbai-based think tank. Says Chaitanya, “I also analyse space policy of other nations like US, Russia and China and see how we (India) stand in comparison. Mumbai is an international port city, with its highly developed surrounding regions like Pune, Aurangabad, Nashik it is a highly industrialised zone, it is ideal for the next generation of technologies.”

There is a perception that India does not have a scientific temper, even prior to a recent Science Congress there were apprehensions about superstitions and mumbo-jumbo taking over the hard, clear look of Science. Chaitanya says, “Specifically about the city, the Mumbai demographic in some ways does not support Science.

The city is strongly commerce driven and its service sector is vibrant. Where Science is strong, is in certain pockets, which are not accessible to the layperson. This does not mean that Mumbaikars are incapable of making it big in Science look at the role models and stalwarts we have from Homi Sethna to Bhabha,” explains Chaitanya.

He ends with...
As a sign off, his message to those with stars (quite literally) in their eyes is, “Stick with Science. India needs scientists. Do not switch faculties. You have to stay there and slog” says this fan of music, who jokes that he listens to bhangara pop while analysing scientific data.

This bhangara pop follower looks around him at the students milling around and says amused that Ruia reminds him of the Szechuan Rice he used to eat in the canteen, “Really fiery. I do not know if I have the stomach for that now,” he adds, saying though that he might though still have a stomach for, “Vishnu ki chai, I used to drink while studying here.

He was our favourite tapri (Mumbai lingo for favourite small chai haunt). In fact, I was thrilled to know that he still remembers me, when I saw him now. I think Vishnu was also featured in one newspaper, was it yours? mid-day?” he asks.

Chaitanya jokes, “So, now that Vishnu is a celebrity, I hope he keeps remembering me. He reminded me when he saw me, paanch rupiah baaki hai” (you owe me R 5) adds this accomplished space scientist laughing with a quirky, appealing sense of humour.

Dr Chaitanya Giri, who as all those brochures would say is one of the shining stars on the cutting edge of space technology, whose interest and future lies in the stars and skies, has not forgotten his cutting chai or Mumbai roots.

As for the Vishnu chaiwallahs of Mumbai, they are so enterprising that they might set up a tapri on the International Space Station (ISS) itself and astronauts will share a cutting chai, ekdum Mumbai style, discussing the next big leap in space science.

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