From astronomy documentaries to LIGO : Akshat Singhal

Akshat Singhal, a Y9 batch alumnus of IIT Kanpur who was directly involved with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment and co-authored the phenomenal paper “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger, Feb 11, 2016” was on campus recently. He shares with Vox, his experiences as a student in IIT-Kanpur, and how those experiences helped him in the journey of life.

My experiences in IIT Kanpur

It all started during Takneek. Before college, I was quite interested in astronomy, in what NASA and ISRO did and I used to watch a lot of documentaries on Discovery. Those were the things that encouraged me. During Takneek, I met many like minded individuals. We pursued our passion and stood first in Astronomy quiz in Takneek and in Techkriti later. We saw astronomy club had a good potential. I was also participating in dance, and at times it was hard to balance dance, astronomy and academics. But somehow I was doing it. Next year we were chosen for secretaries. We had some ideas, we implemented them. Then the coordinator interviews were there and soon we realised that this is not the best the club can be.

We realised we had to change it. But we didn’t know how or what to do. From our secretary times, we realised that the sky is not our good friend! We cannot rely on it. So we must have our own ‘sky’. We had a meeting with the then SnT general secretary, Pulkit Agarwal and we came up with a silly idea. It involved covering the entire outreach auditorium from inside with a black cloth with some system to show stars and then do observations there. Of course that was logistically and financially not possible. We would have had to close our club for a century to ensure that the club had enough funds to build the planetarium.

After a lot of research, we ended up with few possible ideas, and we got the funding. Now the pressure was on us, to do justice to that trust. Otherwise we could not expect similar generosity in future. Our SnT general secretary was very interested in it. Our initial planetarium (covering entire auditorium with black cloth) proposal was absolutely impractical but he encouraged us. Had he been a rational or logical guy he would have laughed at us. Instead, he appreciated our efforts and because of his encouragement we pursued our dream. By that time, Abhinav Prateek was the general secretary. He fought for the funds and helped us at every step. He said “Whatever you do, if it’s good you take the credit, if it’s wrong, I take the blame. I am with you, don’t worry… You just focus on your dream.” Finally, we inaugurated it, the record books accepted our proposal and we were acknowledged as India’s first student made planetarium, in Limca Book of Records, and as Asia’s first student planetarium in Asia Book of Records.

Interestingly, everything was done by the first and second year students. The ideas were from first yearites. There were engineering challenges which first yearites solved themselves. Just imagine, if the precision had been off by one degree, then the sphere could not have been formed. At the end of the day, we were able to finish it.

After the success of planetarium, I started discussing other topics in astronomy and the mathematics involved in them with professors. Till now we used to only ‘count stars’, which was not very interesting. That was the time when we introduced the proposal of the observatory. This proposal had been pending for the past 12 years,  but it required more than Rs. 33 lakh (current cost Rs. 25 lakh) which the institute didn’t have for a student club or even for semi-professional projects. With help from DOSA sir, we got part of the budget. This time the challenge was more financial and logistical and it took us a year to overcome it.

Once the instruments arrived, we didn’t know how to assemble it. Internet guidelines and manuals weren’t sufficient and we didn’t want to do something wrong because the instruments were very expensive and sensitive. Now the only thing left was to assemble and make sure everything worked, but there were many technical problems on the way. Somehow we solved both technical and logistic problems and we successfully assembled the observatory.

In this journey, a lot of us appreciated the courses we were taught in IIT Kanpur and realised their importance. We were foolish not to have that foresight. Students often think, “What’s the use of Cauchy criterion?”, or “Why do we study MTH 10 at al1?”, all of which seems boring at that time. We actually had to use those concepts in real life.

Life after IIT Kanpur

Life after the four years on campus was somewhat hazy. I didn’t know what to do exactly. I was good with commissioning work, as I did a lot of it while leading the club and my hall in various events. But that did not mean I was good with research. Part of the reason being, I was not good in academics. But it was the professors here who saw my potential better than me, and motivated me to take up research in astronomy and recommended me to go to IUCAA, Pune (Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics).

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So from there I started looking at this idea more seriously. I didn’t apply for placements and went to  Pune. There my contributions were in the field of gravitational waves and people appreciated my work. I was not good with physics or advanced mathematics but when time demanded, I did my research through internet or books, and completed the job.

Then I applied for a PhD in Europe. Again, I fell into a state of confusion, whether to stay back in India or go to Europe. I was selected for the Marie Curie Fellowship, which is regarded as one of Europe’s most competitive and prestigious awards. I got a tremendously warm welcome there.

And then came the life changing event. After 100 years of research, humans detected gravitational waves. The sensitivity we had to achieve for this accomplishment was beyond imagination. It’s like noticing the change in one drop in all the water on earth. I would say I was a small brick in a huge castle. But passion and hardwork drove me to reach the right place at the right time.

Message to students

I faced challenges everywhere, in IIT Kanpur during hall events, during my club activities, in IUCAA during gravitational waves research. What IIT Kanpur has taught me is that if there is a challenge and you don’t know how to overcome it, you can’t give excuses or say “I don’t know” or “I can’t do it”. Just put your best efforts and you will make it.  And this small lesson that I learnt in IIT Kanpur helped me throughout my life. The series of challenges I faced here gave me that boost to grow my interest and convert my hobby into my profession.