Abhay Ashtekar is a theoretical physicist and the founder of loop quantum gravity, an increasingly popular branch of physics that attempts to unify quantum mechanics with Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity (which celebrates its centenary this year). Currently the Director of the Institute for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Pennsylvania State University, Ashtekar spoke to Nithyanand Rao and Swetamber Das at IIT Madras on October 7, 2015 about his inspirations, his encounters with Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Roger Penrose, work on gravity and cosmology, and his criticisms of string theory.
Nithyanand Rao and Swetamber Das interview Abhay Ashtekar in The Wire:
I guess you took classes by Chandra [Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar] as well.
Yes, I came to know him quite well. I was very fortunate. After my Ph.D., I went to Oxford to work with Roger Penrose. That was also because of Chandra. But then they asked me to come back to Chicago. So I went to Chicago again. Particularly in this second stage, I came to know Chandra and his wife very well. They were kind. They used to invite me for dinners and so on. Chandra was so reserved; he was god-like, a completely different level of human being. But then he would get into the flow of things and he would tell all the stories – his memory was just phenomenal; there is nobody who comes anywhere close to him. He would remember what he was doing in, say, August 1931 and what had happened then. He would recall it with all the details – all the people and all the names and everything. I have trouble remembering what happened yesterday! He would tell these fantastic stories.
I was really fortunate that I got this exposure to three great people, my great teachers: One was my Ph.D. advisor Robert Geroch. Chandra told me that he felt that except for John von Neumann, he has never seen anyone as brilliant as Bob; and it was true. Bob is extremely brilliant.