Radhakhrishna Somanah

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ORAL HISTORIES
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Interviewed by
Jarita Holbrook
Interview date
Location
Le Meridien Resort, Mauritius
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Interview of Radhakhrishna Somanah by Jarita Holbrook on 2013 July 7, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/36986

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In this interview, Radhakhrishna (Dinesh) Somanah discusses topics such as: his educational background, Loyola College, George Sudarshan, University of Mauritius, Mauritius Radio Telescope, Raman Research Institute (RRI), Ravi Subrahmanyan, International Astronomical Union (IAU), Nadeem Oozeer, radio astronomy, Richard Hundstead, quasars.

Transcript

Holbrook:

…July 7, 2013. We are in the Le Meridien Resort in Mauritius. It’s Jarita Holbrook interviewing Dinesh. Can you state your first and last name and spell your last name?

Somanah:

Dinesh Somanah. My last name, S-o-m-a-n-a-h.

Holbrook:

Thank you. All right. So how do you classify yourself, as a physicist or as an astronomer?

Somanah:

As a physicist.

Holbrook:

Okay. So let’s test the sound quality. Great. So you consider yourself to be a physicist. [Yes.] Can you tell me about your learning?

Somanah:

[???]

Holbrook:

Yes. Tell me about your education.

Somanah:

From high school?

Holbrook:

We’ll get before that, but start with high school.

Somanah:

Okay. I studied in Mauritius in a high school in Mauritius we call it college. It’s called the Royal College of Curepipe from the age of 11 to 19.

Holbrook:

So what was the…Curepipe?

Somanah:

Curepipe.

Holbrook:

Can you spell that for the record?

Somanah:

C-u-r-e-p-i-p-e.

Holbrook:

Okay, Curepipe, the town.

Somanah:

Yeah. It’s pronounced Curepipe.

Holbrook:

Yeah, yeah, Curepipe. Was there an entrance requirement to go to that college?

Somanah:

Yes. In Mauritius when you go to school, what you call primary school, from the age of five to ten, so at the age of ten, you have a national exam which is very competitive. So you know, the exam is to be able to go to the best schools, best high schools in Mauritius. So I was among the best students, so I got the best high school.

Holbrook:

Mm-hmm [yes]. This best high school, was it known particularly for science?

Somanah:

No, no. All high school —

Holbrook:

It was all around. [Yes.] How many high schools were there to choose from? Mauritius is small.

Somanah:

Yeah. So when I completed my primary school, there was around maybe 30 or 35 high schools.

Holbrook:

Was it possible for everyone in your age group to find a high school, or were some people not —

Somanah:

No. We have high schools for all Mauritians. They choose —

Holbrook:

Yeah. So even if they don’t do well, there’s a high school for them.

Somanah:

Right.

Holbrook:

Yeah, that’s good. Okay. So you got into this fancy high school, Curepipe.

Somanah:

Yes. In Mauritius we have four high schools which can be considered as among the elite. All high schools follow the British system, of O Level Cambridge and A Level Cambridge. So after A Level Cambridge, again there is a competition to get scholarships. So there is a ranking of the first 50 Mauritians, boys and girls separated, and the best students get scholarships. So when I was at the high school, the first four got scholarships to go to U.K. So I don’t remember which rank I was, maybe around 15 or 20, so I got a commonwealth scholarship to do my university studies in India. So it was in south of India. So I joined a college called Loyola College, which is a Jesuit college. It’s supposed to be one of the best in India and very disciplined, run by Jesuit priests. My head of department was Fr. Incheckal.

Holbrook:

Can you spell that name?

Somanah:

I-n-c-h-a-c-k-e-l, who did his Ph.D. in Harvard. The vice chancellor was a priest again, so it was not an easy job.

Holbrook:

Right, right. So the one that went to Harvard, was he American? Or he was Indian?

Somanah:

No, he was Indian.

Holbrook:

And he went to Harvard and came back. [Yes.] So before you went off to Loyola College, did you know that you wanted to study the sciences?

Somanah:

Yeah. I really wanted to do physics. I had very good A Level results. I could have chosen medicine or engineering or any subject, but I really wanted to do physics since A Level, it’s…

Holbrook:

Why?

Somanah:

Well, one of the reasons, we had very bad physics teachers.

Holbrook:

Bad! [Laughter]

Somanah:

Yes. Usually, good physics teachers will inspire you to study physics. But in my case, we had very good chemistry and math teachers, biology teachers. But the physics teachers were very bad, and fortunately, since I was in a very good college, there was a group of around five of us. We were always studying together. Maybe it was a blessing in disguise to have a bad physics teacher. Then one more friend and myself, we said that we were going to study physics, so I was really motivated to do a degree in physics. So I got a commonwealth scholarship in India. So during my BSc, I came first in university and —

Holbrook:

So wait. It’s very interesting that you studied with five other guys. Were they guys and girls or just guys for your physics?

Somanah:

No. In the high schools in Mauritius, boys and girls are separate except one of the schools.

Holbrook:

But in your special group, though.

Somanah:

All boys.

Holbrook:

All boys. [Yes.] So what’s happened to them?

Somanah:

Yeah. One did MSc physics. Two studied medicine, and whenever I meet them (they are in Mauritius right now), they say that the strong physics background has really helped them to become good doctors. Two more have done engineering and they are not in Mauritius.

Holbrook:

Right. So all of you went on to get advanced degrees. [Yes.] Yeah, okay. That’s good.

Somanah:

And the interesting thing is that in good high schools like Royal College of Curepipe which is for boys, the equivalent for girls is Queen Elizabeth College, all Mauritians go for higher studies abroad, which is not the case for other high schools. We had to go abroad as most courses were not offered at the University of Mauritius (1980s) unlike today (2013).

Holbrook:

Yeah, you went — Did you do any projects or anything while you were at Loyola?

Somanah:

No. At that time, there were no undergrad projects.

Holbrook:

Yeah. So were you expected to do an honors? [Yes.] Was it three years in honors? [Yes.] And then in the honors, did you do a project, or still no project?

Somanah:

No, there was no project. But the degree in Loyola College, it’s like besides physics you have to do so many other things.

Holbrook:

So it’s a well-rounded…

Somanah:

It’s well-rounded. It was like a credit system. You need a certain amount of credits in sports, in philosophy, in religion, in social work. I was really lucky to be in Loyola College because there was someone I really admired, and I was able to meet that person there. It was Mother Teresa.

Holbrook:

Mother Teresa. Wow!

Somanah:

Yes. She was coming nearly every six months. So part of the social work…and this was some kind of turning point in my life. So there were four Indian friends and myself. We went to Calcutta. So you needed one week of social work. You have to do it. So when we were in Calcutta, our job was to… I think Calcutta, you have the highest density of beggars in the world. You add in five of those who are the worst cases, bring them to the shelter of Mother Teresa, give them a shower, and give them food, talk to them. Most of them were about to die. It was in one week. So I saw around 15 of them die in front of me with a smile instead of dying on the road. That was some kind of turning point in my life. And at the same time around that time, I lost my father who was in Mauritius.

Holbrook:

So it was a hard time.

Somanah:

My mom did not inform me immediately because she knew I was coming first in university and it was exam time. She phoned me around maybe one week after. Then there was no point to come back.

Holbrook:

Wow, that’s a hard time. So how did that — I mean I hate to pry, but you know, that’s the time when you were making new decisions about your life from these two. [Yes.] Can you tell me what decision did you make and how it played out the rest of your life? [Yes.] That’s up and close and personal with loss.

Somanah:

My father is the first Mauritian to have a Ph.D. in philosophy. He was writing books and was a very kind of spiritual person. He belonged to quite a few spiritual organizations all over the world, and he was traveling a lot. He even went to the U.S. which was rare for Mauritians at that time. There were a few spiritual organizations that I remember in New York or Washington. So I was never interested in philosophy in high school. I was an atheist, and I was not interested in such topics. And suddenly after his death, I started reading philosophy, and later after his death, I found out that it helped me to grasp in a more profound way many concepts in physics.

Holbrook:

Really?

Somanah:

Yeah, it did. [Laughter]

Holbrook:

That’s a surprise! Yeah.

Somanah:

Especially quantum mechanics or subjects where…

Holbrook:

Yes, where it’s uncertain.

Somanah:

…you cannot use your common sense to understand. Someone, I think one American physicist, said, “You have to use common nonsense to understand things like general relativity or quantum mechanics.”

Holbrook:

I agree.

Somanah:

And I think at the back of my mind, my subconscious mind, I was philosophical. It was some kind of catalyst to get into it.

Holbrook:

Mm-hmm [yes]. You know, it’s interesting because it’s usually a death of somebody close to you that changes your religion. So if your religion was atheism before, it changed you, right?

Somanah:

I did not become a believer, but I became at least more agnostic, and it changed my life. My spiritual pathway was…yeah.

Holbrook:

Yeah, to the positive. [Yes.] So one of the papers that I wrote was called “The Six Survival Strategies of African American Astrophysicists,” so what they do to survive a hostile environment. There are two that everyone wants to talk about of the six. One is going into therapy because you do go into therapy sometimes, and the other is if they have a religious belief that God is the one who told them to go…you know, that this is the path that they’re supposed to do it in a spiritual sense. It makes them more resilient to survive in hostile environments. So you’re not quite saying that, but it is a shift. [Yes.] There was a shift.

Somanah:

Yes, there was a shift. There was a shift —

Holbrook:

Right. Then the rest of that played out. So then you became — You said it really impacted the way you did the more esoteric physics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, and things like that. [Yes.] But did it also shape what you chose to do as projects as you moved forward?

Somanah:

Yeah. It helped me because… So I came first in my BSc. So again, I got a scholarship to do my MSc. So I had many choices, and maybe that triggered me to choose theoretical physics. So I did my MSc in theoretical physics. I had read quite a lot of books, popular books. One book I remember at that time was The Tao of Physics by Fritj of Capra and Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav. Then my professors at university when I was doing my BSc, some of them were interested in philosophy, so we used to discuss. Maybe that prompted me to choose theoretical physics.

Holbrook:

So I realize that we don’t have your birth date. Can you please tell me when you were born?

Somanah:

I was born on the 3rd of October 1960.

Holbrook:

1960, and you were born in Mauritius?

Somanah:

In Mauritius.

Holbrook:

Which town were you born?

Somanah:

In Curepipe. That’s my hometown.

Holbrook:

Okay. So before we move forward, we’re going to move backwards. So your father was a philosophy professor. [Yes.] Were all of your family from your grandparents onward were born and raised in Mauritius? [Yes.] Who was the most recent immigrant that you know of?

Somanah:

I have done my family tree on my mother’s side and father’s side. So mother’s side, you have two trees and he has two trees. In all four of them, I am the fourth generation. So my ancestors in the four trees reached Mauritius from India by the end of 19th century.

Holbrook:

Mm-hmm [yes]. And they came from?

Somanah:

Yeah. Most Mauritians are of Indian origin. Their ancestors come from India, and from India, they come from a state in the north of India called Bihar. So mine was a minority that came from a state in the south of India called Andhra Pradesh where they speak Telugu. So one of the reasons we knew from which state or if it’s like the language… Here in Mauritius we call it ancestral language. So my mother can speak Telugu; my great grandparents could speak Telugu. Unfortunately, in my generation we have a tendency not to know the ancestral language, like I cannot speak Telugu.

Holbrook:

So your father had a Ph.D. in philosophy. [Yes.] And his grand — So your grandparents, were all of them educated as well at university level? [No.] Or only secondary school?

Somanah:

In Mauritius, you take most what you call blacks would be from Africa or India. Initially they were not educated, most of them. So on my father’s side, my grandfather on the father’s side, they were not educated. But on my mother’s side, they were more educated. Like my grandfather on the mother’s side, he was…in French we call it interprète in the Supreme Court where you needed some kind of degree. So it was a time where very few blacks, Indians, or Africans had good jobs in the government. Most of them were whites. So he was I think among the first Indian, a Mauritian of Indian origin, the interpreter of, I think you call it, usher language — I’m not really sure — in the Supreme Court.

Holbrook:

So you say usher or interpreter.

Somanah:

Interpreter, yes.

Holbrook:

Right, okay. So he would go in every day and listen to cases and translate. [Yes.] Yes, okay.

Somanah:

So everything had to be written in English.

Holbrook:

So you know he was educated. [Yes.] But you don’t know if it was a university degree. He had some sort of specialized training.

Somanah:

Yeah, he had the specialized training. At that time, the university was inexistent in Mauritius. From what I understand from my mum… Yeah, an interesting story about my mum. She is among the first Mauritians, a Hindu lady, to have worked for the government. What I remember — There were no university degrees. So they had specialized trainings, and I think the British were coming here to do the special trainings and getting certificates. It was equivalent to a University, but not really a university. The university came much after. The University of Mauritius is just 30 years old.

Holbrook:

So what was her job with the government?

Somanah:

Who?

Holbrook:

Your mother.

Somanah:

Yeah. She was a nutritionist, and as a kid I used —

Holbrook:

Which is a bit of a science.

Somanah:

Yeah. It was like, I think, home economic science, home economics. I remember when I was so small. In the early days, I used to accompany her. She used to get the chauffeur-driven van. So her job was… Like in Mauritius, it still exists in Mauritius. We have what we call social welfare centers in villages. So the aim of the social welfare centers is to take care of girls who have not had the primary education or left high school very early, train them in knowing what nutrition, the different components of nutrition, how to stitch, how to become a good housewife. So she was in charge. In Mauritius, we have 9 districts, and she was in charge of two or three of these districts. In December, they used to have a competition for the best food or cake. So when I was small, I used to accompany my mum and I used to taste all the cakes. Sometimes I was the one who decided who got the first prize. [Laughter]

Holbrook:

What a great childhood!

Somanah:

Yeah. My grandfather is very unique. Like it was a time where it was taboo for an Indian girl to sing in public, to work in the government. So priority was given to boys. But he was kind of a revolution. So he was the one who encouraged my mum and three of her sisters to go in the public to sing. If I’m not mistaken, my mum is maybe among the first Mauritian Indian lady to have sung in public.

Holbrook:

Wow. So did he have any sons? [Yes.] He had sons and he still promoted his daughters. [Yes.] That’s nice.

Somanah:

Actually, what I understand from my mum, so there were five sons. Only the eldest one, who also is high school in Royal College of Curepipe, and he studied his MBBS in India and specialized and became an ophthalmologist and went to U.K. Daughters were not —

Holbrook:

So what did he become? A barrister?

Somanah:

No, a doctor, ophthalmologist.

Holbrook:

A doctor, med — Oh.

Somanah:

A specialist.

Holbrook:

What?

Somanah:

Ophthalmologist.

Holbrook:

What do they do? Oph…

Somanah:

Eyes.

Holbrook:

Oh, ophthalmologist, yes.

Somanah:

It’s op? I think it was… Okay, maybe the French it’s ophthalmologist.

Holbrook:

Yeah, yeah. English…American English is not standard!

Somanah:

I think in English it’s oph —

Holbrook:

An eye doctor. He became an eye doctor! [Laughter]

Somanah:

Eye doctor. But my mum used to tell me the other brothers were really lazy. They didn’t like to work. But ultimately, all of them have become very successful businessmen. But they were not good in studies.

Holbrook:

Right. So you didn’t tell me. Your grandfather on your mother’s side, what did he do?

Somanah:

My grandfather on mother’s side? [Yes.] He’s the one who was the interpreter.

Holbrook:

He was the interpreter. [Yes.] Okay, that’s right. Yeah, okay. I’m bad this morning. Okay, and I hope the rest of the interview is not like this. So he’s the interpreter. The other grandfather is the laborer. The interpreter educated all of his children, right?

Somanah:

The story of my father is very unique in Mauritius. So my grandfather was a laborer, but at the same time, he saved. He was a good buyer on 50 acres of land. My father was around 18; there were only two brothers. No, one brother, one sister who died. His elder brother was around 21. A particular year, they lost their father, their mother, one brother, and one sister. Both of them, in Mauritius at that time, in French we say people were autodidacte[?]. Autodidacte. Maybe you can find the English translation. It’s someone who learns everything on his own…

Holbrook:

Oh yeah. Yeah, yeah.

Somanah:

…ends up going through college. Autodidacte maybe.

Holbrook:

So self-made.

Somanah:

Self-made, yeah.

Holbrook:

Self-made man.

Somanah:

So they sold all the property. They went to India. They went to India for ten years. Do you know of… Mahatma Gandhi was in India at that time. So to learn more about the Indian philosophy, to learn about yoga, to meet gurus, whatever it is. So it was ten years’ travel in India. So when they came back — So at that time, it was a privilege to go to high school. It was fee paying. So they opened the first private high school in the south of Mauritius.

Holbrook:

Yeah. This is your father.

Somanah:

Yeah, my father and his brother. So it’s in a place called Mehebourg, which is in the south —

Holbrook:

Can you spell that?

Somanah:

M-e-h-e-b-o-u-r-g. They were very philanthropist kind of people, so any poor people who could not afford to send their kids to high school, they were given free education. The college was run at a loss, actually. That’s why maybe it lasted for only 15 years and they had to close down.

Holbrook:

That’s still good. To have it run for 15 years is good.

Somanah:

Very often, I meet people who have studied in my father's college (called Verity college) in Mauritius, some of them very well-placed. When they see me, it reminds them of my father.

Holbrook:

Aww, and they’re like, “Oh, thank you for your father!”

Somanah:

Yeah. Well, one of them nearly cried. Yeah, it was because thanks to him and his brother, they’ve been able to study and reach whatever they’ve done in life.

Holbrook:

How did they finance the school to begin with?

Somanah:

They were writing books which were sold. If I remember, my father was sending his books in the U.S., sending it to the U.S.

Holbrook:

Philosophical.

Somanah:

Yeah, yeah. So giving private tuition also. Private tuition was to the rich kids.

Holbrook:

Yeah. So they helped finance the poor kids.

Somanah:

Yes. They were like Robin Hood kind of, you know? It was the same thing. [Laughter]

Holbrook:

You’re assuming a lot. [Laughter] Yeah. Yeah, his family was quite poor when they came to the United States, but they did turn it around! [Laughter] Yes. Okay. So this gives you a very rich background, which was your foundation.

Somanah:

Yes. I think so.

Holbrook:

For one thing, probably it was absolutely essential that you go to secondary school and essential that you go to university.

Somanah:

I think I’ve been lucky to have parents who have —

Holbrook:

That really push you to…yeah.

Somanah:

Yeah, yeah. Actually, they never pushed me. They rather inspired me. I don’t remember —

Holbrook:

Are you an only child or —?

Somanah:

There are three brothers; I’m youngest.

Holbrook:

Yeah. And all the others ones also became quite professional?

Somanah:

Yes. The second one is an IT engineer. The third one is a very good story. Like among all my first cousins, all of us have done university studies except him. So after high school, he worked in a casino. That was a long time back. Today he has not done university studies, but maybe he’s had in-house training. He is a director of two of the biggest casinos in Senegal and Ivory Coast.

Holbrook:

Oh, so he left the country.

Somanah:

Since maybe 20 years. He’s the only one in the family who lives like a maharaja.

Holbrook:

Yeah, he’s so rich.

Somanah:

Yeah, he’s so rich.

Holbrook:

From being in the casino business.

Somanah:

So whenever we have to pay the clinic for my mom, since he has more money than myself and my second brother, he is the one who pays.

Holbrook:

You ask, yeah. [Laughter] More money than God, yes. Wow! So then your last brother, the youngest.

Somanah:

He’s the one, director of the casino.

Holbrook:

So you said —

Somanah:

So second one is an IT engineer.

Holbrook:

IT engineer. You said there were four.

Somanah:

Three, three.

Holbrook:

Three, okay. Three. So now we can go back to you. So you study theoretical physics for your master’s. [Yes.] But where did you go to school for your master’s?

Somanah:

Yeah. So after my BSc, I applied for a scholarship through the Mauritian government. At that time, there were a lot of politics, so some rules if you got a scholarship for your BSc, we won’t give a scholarship for MSc. That was bullshit. So I really wanted to continue with my studies. Now if you are a foreign student in India, everything has to go through the minister of external affairs in Delhi. It’s a very complicated procedure. I somewhat cheated. What I did, I wrote an entrance exam in for IIT. IIT is Indian Institute of Technology, which is the best in India, among the best in the world, where you have the best Indian students who go there. So I wrote the entrance exam, and on the application form, I said “Indian.”

Holbrook:

Right, as opposed to Mauritian. Yes.

Somanah:

Maybe that’s the only… That’s the biggest cheat I’ve done in my life.

Holbrook:

Right, right. Where is IIT?

Somanah:

So you have five in India: one in Chennai, one in Delhi, Bombay, Kanpur, Kharagpur. Maybe there are more now, but I’m talking when I was studying. So I came first so I got a seat, and then I applied for an Indian scholarship. It’s called an ICCR or Indian Council for Cultural Relations scholarship, which I got. As always, my parents could not —

Holbrook:

Afford, yes.

Somanah:

Afford, yeah. So then I decided —

Holbrook:

So once you got in, you got the scholarship. [Yes.] I see. Yeah. But they never caught you.

Somanah:

No, they never caught me. [Laughter]

Holbrook:

Okay, because once you got the scholarship, you could say, “Okay, I’m Mauritius.”

Somanah:

Actually, they came. The administrative guys, you know, he came to find out. Even during my first year I came first. They saw I was doing well, and I was a very kind of extrovert person being on good terms with everyone. They found out, but they did not report it.

Holbrook:

Well, that’s nice.

Somanah:

Yeah. They did find out the —

Holbrook:

Yeah. So as long as you were a good student, it was fine.

Somanah:

Good student and also getting along well with everyone, so they say it’s okay.

Holbrook:

It’s okay.

Somanah:

But that was an offense. [Laughter]

Holbrook:

Yeah. You’re going to jail for that one! [Yes.] It shows your determination.

Somanah:

Yeah, I was determined. I was determined.

Holbrook:

Yeah. So you got into IIT. Which branch did you go to?

Somanah:

Theoretical physics.

Holbrook:

No, no, no. I’m sorry. Which location?

Somanah:

In Chennai.

Holbrook:

In Chennai.

Somanah:

So both BSc and MSc in Chennai.

Holbrook:

Okay. So after your master’s, still you haven’t done any project, right?

Somanah:

I did it during my MSc.

Holbrook:

Okay. What was your project then?

Somanah:

So I was lucky. It was the first time I think that theoretical physics specialization was being run, so there were three major institutes in Chennai: one for the math science institute, the University of Madras, and the IIT where I was. So the point was that the professors from the three different institutes would teach me. I was lucky to have someone who is, I think, very well-known in theoretical physics, George Sudarshan.

Holbrook:

Can you spell the last name?

Somanah:

S-u-d-a-r-s-h-a-n. So he used to tell us at that time he should have got the Nobel Prize in the place of Feynman. So he was working on electroweak theories and whatever Feynman did. I never checked that, but I know he was among the most well-known Indian physicists. He was a professor in Texas, Austin, also. So he’s the one who taught me particle physics. I’ve been teaching particle physics at the undergrad level for the last 20 years at the University. That was my first love in physics.

Then my project, since I really liked… I did subjects like quantum field theory and general relativity, and my project was on — what do you call — Kaluza — Klein theory, which is an extension of GR to five dimensions. You can unify the gravitational force and the electromagnetic force. So my project was on that.

Holbrook:

And you ended up with a publication or —?

Somanah:

Unfortunately, at that time I was not really conscious about publication, and my supervisor left after and I had to come to Mauritius. I’m sure at that time it could have been published, but we were not in the publishing kind of mindset. That was in 1986.

Holbrook:

He had somewhere to go, and you had to come back home. [Yes.] So then what happened with your career—

Somanah:

So during my MSc, I was like in IIT. So that’s the biggest brain drain in India. It’s where most of the guys in IIT, which are the best Indian guys in engineering and physics, they go to the U.S after. So as you join IIT, you already start studying the GRE exam, the subject test physics, the first years. Like the seniors pass AGRE physics questions to the juniors. So I did write the exams and had very good results. I could have done my Ph.D. in theoretical physics in the U.S.

Holbrook:

But you didn’t.

Somanah:

I did not.

Holbrook:

What did you do?

Somanah:

So when I came back home, my youngest brother had already left for Africa, and the second one was in a private company where he was traveling quite a lot. My mother wanted me to stay back. So it’s mostly because of family reasons I stayed back in Mauritius hoping… My aim was to do research. I’m hoping to be able to do research at some stage later.

Holbrook:

So what did you do? You started teaching?

Somanah:

Yeah. So I taught for two years in a higher secondary school.

Holbrook:

Which one?

Somanah:

Here we call it higher secondary school.

Holbrook:

Yeah. What was the name of the school?

Somanah:

St. Joseph.

Holbrook:

St. Joseph, okay.

Somanah:

Yeah. Again, priests.

Holbrook:

Yeah. You’re used to them at this point.

Somanah:

Yes. So I was lucky to have among the best high school teachers which Mauritius had produced. It’s very rare to find white Mauritians to teach in high school, so those who decided to go for it was really out of vocation, out of love. So the best math teacher which Mauritius has produced, his name is Robert D’Unienville, and one of the best French teachers, Daniel Koenig. So those guys were my teachers in high school. They also had, I think, a lot of influence on me. Now coming back after my MSc, they were my mates, my colleagues, so it was really interesting. I had them as teachers and now they were my colleagues.

Holbrook:

So they had moved from Curepipe over to St. Joseph?

Somanah:

St. Joseph College, it is a private college, okay?

Holbrook:

Oh, private secondary school called college. Yes. Okay.

Somanah:

Yes. So they had already… I don’t know whether they resigned or it was —

Holbrook:

Retired.

Somanah:

Retired, yeah. Maybe they retired in the public sector to join the private sector. So at that time when I reached Mauritius, there was no faculty of science. There was no job for me at the University. So you had very few PhDs in Mauritius at that time. So most of those who got jobs as lecturers was with an MSc. So two years I taught. Then they needed a physicist on the faculty of engineering to teach the physics part.

Holbrook:

Yeah, and that was at the University. [Yes.] So there was an Engineering, but no… I joined the University in November 1988.

Somanah:

Yeah. The faculty of engineering was it.

Holbrook:

But not —

Somanah:

But not science. The Faculty of Science was created in 1990.

Holbrook:

Interesting. I’m sure there’s some politics behind that decision.

Somanah:

Yeah, maybe.

Holbrook:

Anyway, so you moved to the University, University of Mauritius.

Somanah:

Yeah. So I ended up teaching engineering students things like solid state physics, material science, electronics, and communication, so all the parts where you needed a physicist. Then in 1989, there were two major, I would say kind of breakthroughs at the University. So it was decided to start a faculty of science. So maybe you’re on 15 or 20 colleagues in different departments. We are the pioneers of the faculty of science. We created the faculty of science. At the same time, the Mauritius Radio Telescope started in Mauritius, which was a government to government collaboration between India and Mauritius where we’d be using the expertise of the Indians through an institute in Bangalore called Raman Research Institute. So it was a collaboration between Raman Research Institute and the University of Mauritius. There were three Mauritians, Nalini, who is here in the conference now. Nalini Issur, the lady from Mauritius.

Holbrook:

Oh, I haven’t met her. Can you spell her last name? That’s her last name is Nalini or first name?

Somanah:

First name is Nalini. Her last name is Issur, I-s-s-u-r. So Nalini, myself, and one Mauritian called Kumar Golap, G-o-l-a-p, who is now working with in the VLA and presently one of the projects he is working is CASA. So there are three of us, three Indian professors and engineers and technicians. We conceived and built the Mauritius Radio Telescope, and at the same time —

Holbrook:

So am I to understand that the decision to have a radio telescope in Mauritius was made at the government level, and then they handed the project to you guys? [Yes.] Okay. So it wasn’t as if you guys said, “We want a radio telescope.” No, it went the other way, government-down.

Somanah:

Yes. But in 1987, there were two Indian professors. Professor Radhakrishnan was a director of Raman Research Institute. Actually, he’s the son of C. V. Raman, the Nobel Prize winner in physics. And Professor Sastry who was a professor in another institute in Bangalore itself, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics. They came here. They were able to convince the education minister to have such a project in Mauritius. Then you had the agreement. Then they started to go along. At the same time, I was deciding whether to go to the U.S. or not, and that was very challenging, so I became an astronomer by accident. I wanted to. Whereas Nalini, my colleague, really wanted to become an astronomer. So, I found it very challenging. I also was very patriotic also. I realize that many African countries could have gone much more forward if there were Africans with economics or science degrees that stayed back.

Holbrook:

Yeah, if there wasn’t a brain drain.

Somanah:

If all of us went to the U.S., then the country won’t… Today after 25 years at the University, I realize that’s not my opinion, but other people have analyzed my contribution, and I see it in those students who have done Ph.D.s who know about how to go to the U.S. Just before the conference, one of my BSc students who did his master’s in the U.S., he came back for one year. He told me that he’s got admission in… Is there a university called Chap Hill?

Holbrook:

Chapel Hill.

Somanah:

Chapel Hill.

Holbrook:

Yeah, University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

Somanah:

Yeah, yeah. I did know it was one of the best.

Holbrook:

For… It depends. It depends. It’s a good university.

Somanah:

It’s I think — A public? It’s a public or private university?

Holbrook:

It’s public.

Somanah:

Among the public, it’s among the best.

Holbrook:

It’s good, yeah.

Somanah:

So thanks to my advice. So around four, five Mauritians who have done their undergrad at the Univ. of Mauritius, have done their Ph.D.s in the U.S.

Holbrook:

Yeah, Rene…

Somanah:

Thanks to me, from the advice. I was not able to go so many years back, but through my advice, now they are going.

Holbrook:

Right, and getting their Ph.D.s.

Somanah:

Yes. So the biggest —

Holbrook:

So you went back and got your Ph.D. at some point.

Somanah:

Yes. So what happened is like the three Mauritians, we worked all — So I found the project very interesting. It was very multi-disciplinary, all branches of engineering. Initially there was no physics involved. I found it very challenging. I got into it. Eight of us (five Mauritians, two Indians, and one British guy), we got our Ph.D.s through the Mauritius Radio Telescope Project. Actually, the supervisor who was the resident scientist in Mauritius, he was really trying to use us to get things on the engineering side going, but he never sent us for any conference. All six of us had to really fight with him. We had sufficient material to write our Ph.D. So when I submitted my Ph.D, it was read five times: the first time by Dinesh, second time by Dinesh, through fifth time by Dinesh. Never read it.

Holbrook:

And he’s Mauritius or is he —?

Somanah:

No. He is a professor at Raman Research Institute.

Holbrook:

RRI, okay.

Somanah:

He is very good in image processing, but not good in science. He wanted to kind of monopolize the project for himself, not share in this project with his colleagues who are rich but in science.

Holbrook:

Right, right.

Somanah:

There some names were well-known like Ravi Subrahmanyan, Avinash Deshpande were really good. So we wanted those guys to help us to do the science. Whatever maybe… Most of the Ph.D.s was more about the instrument, developing the software, hardware, developing the algorithms. I think my Ph.D. was maybe the first one where some physics came out of it, and I really wanted to do it. I fought with them. They sent it to my external examiner or assessor who was—and unfortunately he is no more now — Professor Steve Rawlings from Oxford University.

Holbrook:

From which one?

Somanah:

Oxford. So he wrote the best comments you can imagine for my Ph.D. thesis.

Holbrook:

And that’s what got you through.

Somanah:

Yeah, yeah. He realized that in this project, a lot has been done. Then from the comments, I realized I could have submitted it even before whatever I did.

Holbrook:

Yeah, yeah. So I don’t know if you want to have the comments about your advisor as a matter of public record, but perhaps we can just say that you had some difficulties with your advisors and leave it at that. [Yes.] I’ll take out exactly what you said. [Yes.] There were some difficulties, but then your external advisor is the one who really got it through. [Yes.] Okay, yeah. But we should know who your difficult advisor was, so we’ll keep his name and say that he was just difficult. Yeah. But it sounds to me that he was more than difficult. He was trying to stop you.

Somanah:

Yeah. Most supervisors, whenever you have a conference, you send your students to present it. Sometimes we heard much after that he was giving presentations in some part of the world without mentioning our names.

Holbrook:

So he was showing your material. [Yes.] So it was a bit of stealing.

Somanah:

It was a bit of stealing.

Holbrook:

Or scooping, yeah. Did he do that to all the Mauritius students or all of his students?

Somanah:

All of his students.

Holbrook:

All of his students! Oh my goodness.

Somanah:

You could say it’s my perception of him, but all six of us, we think alike.

Holbrook:

Yeah, so you all experienced him presenting the material as if it was his own.

Somanah:

Yeah. There’s something, and it is like just to get away from him, like Kumar Golap, who is in VLA right now. He was an expert programmer in our group. He’s been working on AIPS++ and CASA. He’s really good. He’s one of the best in the world. So he could have — Just to avoid getting into contact with him, there are at least two or three publications from his thesis which he never wrote.

Holbrook:

Yeah, so that he didn’t have to put his name on it or — yeah.

Somanah:

No. He didn’t want to interact with him anymore. He didn’t want to see him. Just imagine such good work in his thesis, but because of him, the advisor, he…

Holbrook:

Mmm. And this guy is still alive. [Yes.] And he’s still in science. [Yes.] Yeah. I think we should say more about this on the record because you really don’t want people to entangle with him and get their work stolen and not get credit for it.

Somanah:

He’s very good in image processing, working on the processing images, signals.

Holbrook:

Signal processing, yes.

Somanah:

Sorry, sorry. I correct myself. He is best in digital signal processing. He knows some image processing. The science part is a big question mark because we are basically physicists. I mean having done engineering work, it has helped us, my two colleagues and myself. We understand how to build a radio telescope from the beginning, how to get the images. All the concepts are very clear to us, so we can go and work in any radio telescope. That was good. But we wanted to do the science part more. We can say we sacrificed our research career to some extent because it was ten years in U.S. I would have done the —

Holbrook:

Just done the science, yes.

Somanah:

But maybe I’ve never seen — without seeing the telescope. But what we have done is something very pioneering also because we are the first — Nalini and Kumar and myself — the first professional astronomers in Mauritius. And now, all of us are involved in the SKA Project. We’ve got a lot more advantages compared to the other African partner countries except S. Africa. We’ve set —

Holbrook:

Yes, because you have a radio telescope. [Yes.] And you knew how to build it.

Somanah:

And we’ve been supervising undergrad, post grad projects so long. One of our students has done his Post-Doc work in South Africa, one doing his Ph.D., three doing their MSc. So all this has been possible because we have stayed back. That’s the patriotic part I was talking about. If Nalini and myself had gone to the U.S., maybe astronomy would not have existed in Mauritius. So it’s a bit like sacrificing ourselves for our country at the cost of publications.

Holbrook:

Yeah. But at the same time, you’re home. [Yes.] You know, you’re very comfortable at home. You understand the system here at home. [Yes.] So there are certain advantages to staying back as well.

Somanah:

But I think that more developing countries, including most African countries, if you don’t have people like us staying back—it can be in any field—the country will be…

Holbrook:

It’s true. But do you find that in the context of other countries, the people who stay back are not the top people? The people who are the top and have the opportunities, they go.

Somanah:

I do see that in some countries.

Holbrook:

So you leave the second- and third-rate people behind, right? [Yes.] Which slows things down.

Somanah:

Because I’ve been representing Mauritius in the SKA steering committee since the last ten years now, so I do meet people from other African countries. Maybe I should not say that.

Holbrook:

But you do see this kind of secondary, third… They’re not the top top. [No.] Yeah. It’s unfortunate. The brain drain is very serious. It’s really serious.

Somanah:

Like Madagascar, there are around 15 students from Madagascar who are doing very well in astronomy in Cape Town right now.

Holbrook:

Yes, in the NASSP Program.

Somanah:

Yes. I meet them in the SKA Bursary Conference in November each year, and numbers of them will not go back. One of the reasons is the political situation in Madagascar. Now you can imagine all those guys are ready. They’re going to be going to the U.S. for post-doc or some other places. If it was the right kind of environment for them to come back to Madagascar…

Holbrook:

They would.

Somanah:

…they would be doing a wonderful job for the SKA Project. I know most of them will not go back.

Holbrook:

Mm-hmm [yes]. So tell me about how you became involved with SKA and what is expected. Are you guys going to build? How many new arrays, how many new dishes here as part of SKA?

Somanah:

Okay. The final configuration of the SKA Project has not been done yet. As you know, you have eight partner countries: South Africa, so you get —

Holbrook:

Mauritius, Madagascar.

Somanah:

Yeah, Mauritius, Madagascar. Namibia.

Holbrook:

Namibia. Botswana?

Somanah:

Botswana, Kenya, Ghana. So the configuration — Most of the dishes will be in the Karoo Desert of South Africa. You have dishes in all African partner countries. So definitely there will be dishes in Mauritius. One big advantage of Mauritius, it will give the longest baseline in east-west, which means the highest resolution in right ascension. So Mauritius is a very important part. So the dishes will come to Mauritius, but right now in the different previous steering committees… Again, my philosophy right now is some kind of African patriotism. Like I even mentioned that in one of the meetings, which could have been a diplomatic problem. I mentioned that the SKA should not become like the HESS telescope in Namibia where it’s only the whites from Germany who have come or benefited from it and the scientists in Namibia have not got anything. But the representative from Namibia just got up, “I'm going to phone your prime minister!” and in my heart, I knew the prime minister. I know he trusts me. He’s like, “Go ahead and do whatever you want. I was just smiling [?] and I apologize.”

Holbrook:

Yeah, mm-hmm [yes]. But it’s true, yeah.

Somanah:

I did not do it purposely. I was just being frank. So in that same spirit, the SKA dishes in the African partner countries are not going to come immediately. So our aim in the next five years is to deblock the curvature…, the expertise in radio astronomy, dish technology, how to collect data, how to analyze data. So in this spirit, in the steering committee for African partner countries, I was one of the main guys. We decided to… we must have an AVN. AVN is an African VLBI. Most of the VLBI are found in the Northern Hemisphere, which means the northern sky has been studied at a higher resolution. There’s always been some kind of paucity of high resolution images for the southern sky. As far as science is concerned, there are many reports which have been returned—a huge number of things which can be done. So by having a 25, 30 meter dish in each of the African partner countries to start with, which will train specially most of the African countries’ astronomy group is not really as strong as in South Africa, but I hear even South Africa is not as strong as U.S. astronomy. So we have a big gap. So through the AVN project, we’ll be able to train people from the technical assistant, technician, engineer, and researchers, Africans in —

Holbrook:

In data pipeline and — yes.

Somanah:

Yeah. So the SKA dishes come, when the SKA data come, hopefully we’ll have more Ph.D.s, more professors, and more trained, skillful people to really optimize on their skill level. It should not be like, “SKA in Africa? What’s the point of SKA in Africa when…”

Holbrook:

Its expertise is all in the Northern Hemisphere.

Somanah:

Yeah. So it’s like some kind of modern colonialism today. I even used that word in — [Laughter] Very strong, but —

Holbrook:

And people don’t like it. [Yes.] What were your interactions like with the IAU? I mean you weren’t the frontline person having to interface with the International Astronomical Union.

Somanah:

In Mauritius, Nalini and myself are members of the IAU. IAU has had nothing to do with that. Yeah. But we are members of IAU because we get the means to keep us informed of what’s going on.

Holbrook:

Right. Your interactions with them, have they been positive?

Somanah:

There was one guy —

Holbrook:

Or colonial or…?

Somanah:

No. IAU is different from the SKA Project which we are in.

Holbrook:

Yes, it’s different.

Somanah:

So the SKA Project has much more of our time. But I would say that since I think one IAU center is in Cape Town right now and Kevin Govender is in charge —

Holbrook:

Oh, that Office of Astronomy Development, yes.

Somanah:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it was fantastic news for Africa, that one African, a member, is directing it and this funding —

Holbrook:

I applied for that job, so…

Somanah:

Oh, okay.

Holbrook:

[Laughter] Kevin got it.

Somanah:

I know. But Kevin is here. He’s been helping everyone. I’m sure you must be as competent as him, but —

Holbrook:

Different.

Somanah:

Yeah. Different, different. [Yes.] So IAU right now is more of funding for conferences, funding of small projects. So we are on good terms with IAU, especially because Kevin Govender is a close friend, and as you know, in any field you are in, networking is very important.

Holbrook:

How did you meet Kevin?

Somanah:

I’ve been going to South Africa doing the last ten years now —

Holbrook:

For the SKA or…?

Somanah:

For the SKA, for the SKA Bursary Conference, and one or two science conferences, conferences on human capital development organized by the DST, Department of Science and Technology. So I met him with different hats. Actually, I’ve been wearing different hats for the SKA. I was scientist; I was politician… just name it. I’ve worn all the hats you can imagine.

Holbrook:

Right, right. How did you decide to get involved with SKA? Were you the first one to reach out a hand to them, or did South Africa come to you?

Somanah:

It was more South Africa coming to us. I think the astronomers in South Africa realized that at some stage it could not be a South African project only. It was some seven or eight years back during the steering committee. Then after discussing with the astronomers, we realized we needed more African countries for doing the science and also to win the bid — Also, the final configuration has not been frozen yet. South Africa alone, especially for the science part, we need all the spacings and the coverage, and also on the political side. So it became an African project.

Holbrook:

Yes, which was very strategic. Yes.

Somanah:

Yeah. I think that was a very strategic decision because South Africa on its own would have lost without Australia. It’s Africa which won. So still a few South African guys forget at times. They don’t do it purposely. They say it’s a South African project. It’s an African project.

Holbrook:

It is an African project, yes.

Somanah:

Then we got into it because the Mauritius Radio Telescope already existed. People came to us that there were a few radio astronomers here, and Mauritius had to be part of it, longest baseline. So it came like naturally. Yeah.

Holbrook:

Yeah. So about that time, ten years ago, is when the NAST Program started taking in students from all over Africa. So how long did it take for you to start sending students to that NAST Program? What was the first —

Somanah:

So I should say because of the SKA Project, biggest telescope in the world in Africa that had an impact on our undergraduate students. So we had students doing undergrad projects in physics in astronomy or astrophysics since a long time. But we want the best students to do projects, not any student. So the best students started doing undergrad projects much after. So Nadeem Oozeer, who is here right now —

Holbrook:

I know Nadeem. Yes.

Somanah:

Nadeem was my BSc and Ph.D. student. Did his post-doc in Joburg, and as you know, to have networking is very important. He got his post-doc at the HartRAO. I went for one of the steering committee SKA meetings in Joburg. I came late. There wasn’t a meeting during the day, so I came at night, and the representatives from South Africa were sitting down. We were having a nice bottle of wine, and I was talking to Roy Booth.

Holbrook:

Yes, Roy Booth.

Somanah:

So Roy Booth and myself, we have something in common. We like good wine, so we were enjoying a very good wine. That’s where I talk about Nadeem.

Holbrook:

Yeah. State Nadeem’s last name for the record. Spell it for the record.

Somanah:

O-o-z-e-e-r. So that’s where I really settled on for Nadeem to doing a post-doc. He is very good in software. He’s very good in using all astronomical softwares and programming, and that’s the kind of guy they needed. So he did his post-doc in Joburg. So he’s the first link with the SKA Project. Now he’s working for the SKA. The second one is Rajin Ramphul. He’s also here. He just got his scholarship to do his Ph.D. in AIMS, I think. No, sorry. SAAO and AIMS. And three other students are doing their MSc in astrophysics in UCT. Last year, two of my students who did their projects with me, undergraduate projects, have gotten the SKA bursary scholarship for MSc.

Somanah:

Yeah. So it’s a starting point. One of them who is doing his master’s by research in UCT, he’s being co-supervised by Patrick Woudt and myself. So we are starting that interaction. It’s what I expect from the other African partner countries also. Like one thing which I did not like I also mentioned in the committees, which is not just always for South Africa to give us something. It’s like you have to see what you can do and then bridge the gap somewhere. Like what we have started at the University, my colleagues and myself, since two years now, we have developed a course, MSc in radio astronomy and applications and astrophysics geared to preparing the human capital development for SKA. Unfortunately, there are only five or six Mauritians who applied, and this is below the critical mass, which is 10. We are re-advertising internationally hoping to get African students.

Holbrook:

Yes, from other parts of Africa.

Somanah:

Yeah, and see some source of funding to get scholarships so that we can run the course in Mauritius.

Holbrook:

So if you do not get ten…

Somanah:

Then there’s some growth of the University optimizing —

Holbrook:

It can’t go forward. [No.] It can’t go forward. So that would start in January?

Somanah:

We’re discussing about it right now. The months, the dates have not been finalized. But it will be re-advertised very soon.

Holbrook:

Right. Good luck with that. That would be great, yeah, because it is. Yeah, South Africa is dominating for the education of the future astronomers in Africa, right, which is a good role for them to be in.

Somanah:

I’ve got a dream. You know UCT is number one university in Africa.

Holbrook:

Yeah. Is it? [Yes.] Really? [Yes.] Okay.

Somanah:

In the top ten, you have eight South African universities. At least the department of physics in all the African partner countries in SKA, they should reach a kind of UCT level.

Holbrook:

Yeah. It takes time.

Somanah:

It will take time, but that’s the only way if you want to get the Africans to benefit from the science of SKA.

Holbrook:

Yeah, and stay in Africa.

Somanah:

And stay in Africa. As always, it could be just like this.

Holbrook:

Yes, where people come in, they take their data, and they leave. [Yes.] Yeah, Namibian —

Somanah:

And some of them might not even come physically here. Just send the data and they’d analyze it and…

Holbrook:

Yeah, yeah. Well, we do have our one Namibian here, right? Eli is here. [Yes.] But he’s the only Namibian astronomer that I know!

Somanah:

Yeah. Eli has learned quite a lot from me from experience. Last night he was… I think how he was praising me for half an hour. “Dinesh. You know, Dinesh has done that.”

Holbrook:

Yeah, how to do this.

Somanah:

Yeah. So he did know who were the representatives of Namibia in the Steering committee. The bad thing of the African partner countries, the representatives keep changing each year, so they don’t have a proper follow-up. Those guys, some of them are…To be frank, I don’t see them having the kind of African patriotism which I have.

Holbrook:

Right. They’re politicians.

Somanah:

So they’re getting a free ticket to come to Joburg or Pretoria for staying in a five-star hotel with VIP treatment, which isn’t right.

Holbrook:

Yeah. Yeah. That’s unfortunate.

Somanah:

Yeah. But Eli is like me.

Holbrook:

Oh, of course. Of course. Yes. Okay. So that’s very interesting about SKA. We didn’t get back to your actual research output. You know, you became a radio astronomer. You got your PhD at University of Mauritius. You were supervised by a very not-so-good advisor at RRI, which means that you had to pretty much design and implement your own dissertation which then got the stamp of approval from Oxford. [Yes.] That trumped what was going on at RRI. So then what happened as you moved forward from that point?

Somanah:

So in between with —

Holbrook:

And you’re already a full-time professor at that point.

Somanah:

Yes. So in spite of all the obstacles, in between I tried to find time to get some publications. But the only thing which keeps us also in Mauritius and other African partner countries is our teaching load.

Holbrook:

It’s very high.

Somanah:

It’s very high and it takes most of our time. Like I take myself last semester. I had three final year majors. I was teaching classical mechanics, nuclear physics, and particle physics, and I try to teach the best I can, so I always have to review what’s the latest in the field. So as I said, particle physics was my first love. Two interesting anecdotes here. In one of them — I don’t how many years now — the T quark was discovered in the middle of the semester. So I had to change quite a lot of stuff in my routine.

Holbrook:

Now that there was a T quark.

Somanah:

Now last semester it was the Higgs boson. It always happens to me, so now I do change. So teaching at undergrad level, if you want to keep it to a good standard in fields which are not your research field, you do have do a lot of research, although it won’t lead to publications. But I believe in it. So I try to keep the standard, and it takes a lot of your time. I was supervising six undergrad projects, and at the same time I’m the director of the Mauritius Radio Telescope, administrative side. So you barely have 1% of the time left for research. It’s like luxury. So it’s the only time like now where there is no teaching that we try to catch up. So in such times we’ve had during the last 10 or 15 years, I’ve been able to get some 15 publications, and sometimes doing things not linked with radio astronomy, collaborating with other colleagues. Like in two of my papers, I’ve collaborated with two of my colleagues who developed some kind of bar code for classifying galaxies kind of stuff.

Holbrook:

Yeah. So is your rate then about one paper a year? Is that what you’re saying? [Yes.] About one paper a year.

Somanah:

Yes. I wish it could be much more.

Holbrook:

Well, but you’re fixed. I mean you have a job for the rest of your life, and a paper a year is pretty good considering all of those things.

Somanah:

I… Maybe.

Holbrook:

Yeah. You could be worse, right, because… I mean it could be… As you know in the United States, a lot of people have high publications because they designed the instrument. I mean for you, you designed, you’re part of the building of this radio telescope. So in theory, you could have said anything that’s published from the day that you have to put my name on it.

Somanah:

I could have done that.

Holbrook:

Right. But you didn’t, right? [No.] So it could be higher if you had done something like that, yeah. So it’s very good that you — You know, you’re not artificially inflating your reputation by just having every publication have your name on it.

Somanah:

No, no. But the science part, the interest in the science part will come out in such kind of conferences we have here where it’s impossible for us to follow what’s going on, the real intriguing issues, the puzzles the way… So fortunately, I’ve been able, just like my colleagues to go for conferences to be in touch with what’s happening.

Holbrook:

Yeah. So when you’re under such conditions where you cannot dedicate every day to research, how do you choose which research projects to focus on? They have to be things that are not going to be scooped, right? [Yes.] So how are you making that choice as to what to do research on?

Somanah:

So I’m still in touch with one guy in India, Professor Ravi Subrahmanyan. He’s the present director of Raman Research Institute.

Holbrook:

I know him, mm-hmm [yes].

Somanah:

He was my supervisor for my MPhil[?].

Holbrook:

Your what?

Somanah:

Before my Ph.D., I submitted an MPhil. That’s the rules of the university. So even my MPhil was full of science. So he was the one who has been catalyzing the interest for me in AGNs, radio galaxies, and quasars. So I also have not published — maybe only one or two publications in that within the last ten years. But that’s my main interest. Through this conference and some previous conferences, I’m starting to get interested in clusters.

Holbrook:

Clusters of galaxies.

Somanah:

Yes. Through Ravi Subrahmanyan, and there’s one professor who is—When I was head of the Department of Physics, I chose him as an external examiner for our MSc course. He is Professor Richard Hunstead from the University of Sydney.

Holbrook:

Can you spell his last name?

Somanah:

H-u-n-s-t-e-a-d. So through some professors who are doing good jobs elsewhere, I’m able to rekindle that interest.

Holbrook:

So what year did you get your Ph.D.?

Somanah:

At the University of Mauritius.

Holbrook:

What year?

Somanah:

Which year. 2005.

Holbrook:

Yeah, so late in your career.

Somanah:

Yes. And I had to fight to write it.

Holbrook:

But just in time for the SKA, right? [Yes.] Yeah, you were already involved with SKA when you finished your… [Yes.] Yeah. So all right. So that puts in context the last, you know, stuff that was post-Ph.D. You’re writing one paper a year, and you’re interested in active galactic nuclei and interacting galaxies and clusters of galaxies.

Somanah:

Yes. Now with the SKA Project, the closer collaboration between South Africa and Mauritius, I’m hoping, thinking positively to benefit more from that interaction because more professors are coming to South Africa and since I go to South Africa once or twice per year. So hopefully in the future, not only for myself and my colleagues at the University in astronomy, we will be able to have more interaction.

Holbrook:

So one thing that’s noteworthy that I’ve noted about your career is that you chose to stay. You’re very patriotic. You’re doing as much administration. You know, so you’ve become a leader in radio astronomy in Mauritius at the expense of a very flashy kind of astronomy career. Like you haven’t made any like fantastic discoveries, but you have this sort of steady, continuous output of work.

Somanah:

Right, yeah. [Unintelligible]

Holbrook:

And you’re happy with that.

Somanah:

I’m not so happy. I wish that I could do much more in the science part. So whatever is left in my career, whatever number of years, I wish to complement this part of my career life doing more science now.

Holbrook:

So what would you be interested in pursuing? If they said, “You’ve done a great job running SKA and the radio telescope, and now we’re going to give you a chair!” Da ta da da! No more teaching! How would you focus your research from then on?

Somanah:

It’s definitely going to be AGNs, FR1, FR2 radio galaxies, quasars. I’ve got some idea, although I have not been really keeping involved in the science. My idea is like some kind of HR diagram for AGNs. We are very far from it. See, that’s my interest, and anything leading to that, I really focus on that.

Holbrook:

But are you slowly making progress on that?

Somanah:

Slowly in my understanding.

Holbrook:

Right. Most of the data that you’re looking at, is it data from your own radio telescope or are you just using also archive data?

Somanah:

So I don’t really have time to use archive data. I do it through my undergrad project students because the point is I don’t have much time. Time is very limited to do anything for me. So by taking the responsibility of supervising these undergrad projects, that forces myself to really try to do something. So we’ve been using archive data for… like I think NVSS first majors, [unintelligible] majors.

Holbrook:

ND… ?

Somanah:

NVSS.

Holbrook:

NVSS.

Somanah:

Yes. So we know — Like in my webpage, I have links where you can get all the archives data, the research papers. So I always tell my students you choose that because sometimes you can go to webpages which are not very well-known. So through my undergrad students, it keeps me alive a bit. But on my own, I would not have been able.

Holbrook:

It’s extremely rare, right? [Yes.] It’s the situation for new faculty, non-traditional faculty in the United States to have to primarily work with undergraduate students, not graduate students. But here you are an established researcher, but you have access to far more undergraduates than you do graduate students? Is that what I understand?

Somanah:

Unfortunately. I wished we could have — At some stage, I wanted to have an MSc by research, and unfortunately, for different results, we have not been able to start this.

Holbrook:

So is it MSc just by class work at this point or no —?

Somanah:

MSc is two years. You have a certain number of majors [?] to complete and a research project. So by having MSc by research is to be able to get the best undergrad students here. The problem which we’ve been lacking right now, it’s Ph.D. students. So no one wants to do a Ph.D. in astrophysics staying in Mauritius. That would have helped me in my research because I have many ideas what to do, but I don’t have the time to do it. So the only way I can do it is through undergrad. So my hope in the future, next five years or ten years, is to be able to run a real MSc by research kind of projects where the research thing can be done at the higher level.

Holbrook:

So right now are they getting their degrees through the physics program? [Yes.] Not astronomy and astrophysics? Are you guys separate or it’s all one department?

Somanah:

No, it’s all the Department of Physics.

Holbrook:

Okay. So are most of the students that are going for the Masters of Science, are they mostly doing physics projects and not doing astrophysics projects?

Somanah:

Yes, yes. But we, through SKA, I hope we have more…

Holbrook:

You’ll get a bigger share of those students. [Yes.] So you always have a steady supply of undergraduates and less of the master’s and even less of the Ph.D.s. [Yes.] I see. Yeah. So they’re —

Somanah:

So if you want to do research, then you take critical mass. We don’t even have the critical mass of astronomers.

Holbrook:

Yeah. You have just three, yes.

Somanah:

There are three of us here, and each one is a different field. And then we don’t have Ph.D. students. So how can you do research? And most of your energy and time is going into teaching and administration. It’s like we are drowning and trying to survive, stay alive. That’s the situation.

Holbrook:

So for the NAST program, the master’s levels are only within South Africa, right? [Yes.] They would not pay for students to come back for Mauritius, right? [Yes.] Yeah. Okay. Yeah, it’s an interesting situation. It’s fortunate that you’re doing very well in what is —

Somanah:

Very difficult conditions.

Holbrook:

Under very difficult conditions and staying alive. But the most important thing that I see about your career is that you’re going to have this huge legacy, that you’ll be remembered as being this pioneer and that you really helped astronomy. The building up is important, right? There is no future if nobody sacrifices to build it up.

Somanah:

So what you just said, that’s one of the reasons why the IAU has chosen my name for a minor planet for the reasons you just mentioned.

Holbrook:

Nice. Okay! So which minor planet did you… ? [Laughter] Where is it?

Somanah:

It’s one of the minor planets. It’s an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, 19138.

Holbrook:

When was that granted to you?

Somanah:

I forgot the year now. I think it was 2006, I think.

Holbrook:

Oh, so right after your Ph.D.

Somanah:

I think so. Yeah.

Holbrook:

Yeah. That’s great! So IAU has been good to you!

Somanah:

So it’s really kind of… So it’s on the Harvard website also, I think. “Has been a pioneer in radio astronomy in Mauritius contributed.”

Holbrook:

Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. It’s good that you’ve got your international recognition.

Somanah:

Yeah. They were discovered by two Italians and by pure coincidence — you won’t believe it — I met them in Mauritius after the IAU chose my name.

Holbrook:

[Laughs] Yes! And they say, “Oh, it’s named after you!”

Somanah:

Yeah, yeah, yeah! [Laughter]

Holbrook:

That must have been a good night. [Laughter]

Somanah:

Yes, it was fantastic.

Holbrook:

So they were just on holiday or in a conference?

Somanah:

Yeah. We had a common friend, a very family friend who was director of some textile factory. So we were having dinner and started talking. “Oh, you’re…” Actually, they were amateur astronomers. Most of the comets and the asteroids are discovered by amateur astronomers because they’re the guys who scan the sky. So he said, “Oh, that’s impossible!” I mean that was — It’s like —

Holbrook:

Amazing. [Laughter] So let me think.

Unknown male:

Good morning.

Holbrook:

Hello! We’re doing a little interview here, so shh! Quiet. Okay, so we’ve gone for an hour, and I just want to make sure that I’ve covered everything, so I’m going to go through this list here. Tell me about your professional networks. So you said that you had the external examiner in Oxford, and of course you met Roy Booth. So how are you meeting these people? And of course you had the connection at RRI. So part of those connections in India were from when you were a student in India. [Yes.] Right. But your other connections to South Africa, how did you make those connections?

Somanah:

Through the SKA Project.

Holbrook:

Yes, and they came to you, right? So that —

Somanah:

Yes. This conference has been organized directly by Bruce Bassett and myself. So it’s through organizing conferences, through participation in conferences, and through… Most of the contacts were during when we were building the radio telescope. So we had the visitors program, so we were inviting the best astronomers from India, one or two per year for one week, two week generations.

Holbrook:

And the government funds that?

Somanah:

So in the Mauritius Radio Telescope Project, so we had the budget where we had the visitors program. So it was funded by the government.

Holbrook:

Fantastic. I also know that you have to be somewhere at 11, right? [Yes.] Okay. This is details of how much the project cost. You had government buy-in for the radio telescope and for the future SKA. [Yes.] Okay. Let me see what else. That’s pretty much — And we’ve talked about the science, which is really good. We talked about your family, which is really good. How about just a little bit about life-work balance because I know that you’re married and you have a child now. You spoke about not having time before, but — [Laughter] Normally when men are interviewed, they don’t talk about life-work balance, so I think it’s really important to have more of the male perspective on life-work balance. So can you tell me about that?

Somanah:

So I have twins, two and a half years old, one boy, one girl. Most of my colleagues complain that they regret not having spent as much time as they wanted with their kids. I’m doing my best so this does not happen, so I sleep less. At least one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening with them. I’ve made a lot of compromises. Yeah.

Holbrook:

How does it — I mean we want details. Who is taking care of your kids during the day?

Somanah:

During the day they are in the crèche. In French it’s crèche, the place where you keep kids below three years. So during the whole day, they stay there. My wife also works. So we take them —

Holbrook:

Yes. So what is the profession of your wife?

Somanah:

She is an HR manager in a sugar factory.

Holbrook:

Yes. So she’s a manager in the sugar factory. [Yes.] So both of you are working professionals. Did she get time off to have the children? [Yes.] And her job was held for her? [Yes.] How long did she get off?

Somanah:

Around six months.

Holbrook:

Six months. And that was paid? [Yes.] Okay. So then for you, does the University have a policy for the fathers to also get time off? [No.] No. So you had to work through. [Yes.] What about relief from teaching during that first six months? Anything like that? [No.] No. No teaching relief. [No.] Okay, because in the U.S. they’re having policies like this that —

Somanah:

We don’t have that.

Holbrook:

Right. Do you think it would have been helpful if there was a policy…

Somanah:

Definitely yes.

Holbrook:

…the first six months that you don’t have teaching?

Somanah:

Definitely yes.

Holbrook:

You know, you’ll still supervise children. Okay, so that could be something —

Somanah:

The advantage of being a professor at the University, it’s because of academic freedom. So basically I have to do things more efficiently in the time allocated to me, which I try to do. I’m sure my professional work does suffer a little bit, but I try to minimize it by being more efficient in my time management.

Holbrook:

So what happened? Because during this time you’re still director of the radio astronomy radio telescope. [Yes.] So what got lost? The research? What got thrown away? Something had to go.

Somanah:

Yeah. It was the research part.

Holbrook:

Yeah. So during the two and a half years since your children have been born, you’ve been manager and teacher, not really doing research. [Yes.] Yeah. So this means — Do you rely more on your collaborators? [Yes.] Yeah, so you make a small contribution.

Somanah:

I’ve been doing something, but it was like less time needed for me to do that thing. It was more like throwing ideas. Some of the ideas were good, which have led to —

Holbrook:

Right, but less touching data, less collecting data, less analyzing —

Somanah:

Less doing that, yes. So it was fortunately I have some collaborators who understand that. They have come to Mauritius; they know the situation. I think it’s more being friends also.

Holbrook:

Mm-hmm [yes]. So your wife had to go back full-time, right? [Yes.] Now the kids are in daycare. Do you have a nanny as well? [Yes.] And the nanny picks them up and… ?

Somanah:

No. It’s with my wife. We take turns. One day it’s her; one day it’s me to pick up the kids. We can take — Like I work from 8 to 5. Sometimes I can go start the earlier exam. So we have a working arrangement.

Holbrook:

Okay, yes. So you knew that having the children was going to impact your career. [Yes.] Yeah. I think that most people don’t realize how much, how much it impacts! [Yes.] Yeah. And at home, I mean if both of you are working, you have a nanny, but do you have a housekeeper? [No.] To clean the house or to cook?

Somanah:

Actually, the nanny does not stay with us. So she was looking after the twins. But now since they have daycare, during the day she does not have anything to do, so she cleans the house and does the cooking.

Holbrook:

Nice. Yeah.

Somanah:

So on alternate days, my wife and myself will pick up the kids around 5. So when they are at home, they sleep — they’re very disciplined — between 7:30 and 8. Very often I do look at my work at night. Sometimes I get up at 4:00 in the morning or work up to midnight. So that way I can really work at home. There are many projects which are reports to write. I do it at home when they are sleeping.

Holbrook:

Yeah. How much is the cost? Because to have a full-time housekeeper/nanny, you know it must be a chunk of you and your wife’s salary.

Somanah:

In Mauritius, fortunately it’s not as much as in U.S. So I can tell you it’s around 10,000 rupees. Divide by…let’s see. 9,000 rupees divided by 30. So it’s $3,000. No. No. Is that correct? It’s $300.

Holbrook:

Per month. [Yes.] That’s really not much. [Yes.] Yeah, that’s not much.

Somanah:

It’s, I would say, a small percentage of our salary. We can afford it.

Holbrook:

Right, right. That’s good. You know, in most situations, you just can’t make enough money to have a housekeeper.

Somanah:

I know, so it’s kind of —

Holbrook:

Especially if you’re a woman trying to go through the whole education and getting tenure and —

Somanah:

In that way, having met many professors from Europe and the U.S. and Australia, I think that’s the main difficulty in developed countries. To get such people, it’s a very big percentage of your salary, which is very small in Mauritius. So I can say in Mauritius, that’s one advantage we have.

Holbrook:

Yes, that you can get household help.

Somanah:

We can afford to do that. We can afford to do it.

Holbrook:

Yes, and that means you can have a career. [Yes.] Yeah, both of you can continue with your careers.

Somanah:

That does help me — yeah. Maybe that’s what you had in mind before. How can I… I do have time.

Holbrook:

Yes, yes. You do have time. Right. Yes.

Somanah:

She has been really helpful. Since my wife is in HR, that’s another advantage. She works for the sugar industry, so she is a boss of everyone. So whatever kind of work we have, she just gets it very easy at a good price, whether it’s plumbing, electricity or taking care of the yard —

Holbrook:

Right. Everybody knows her. [Yes.] Yeah, and they want her business.

Somanah:

So that has saved, and she is very efficient in planning things. There are so many things. Like recently we moved to a new house. So for the new furniture, I didn’t have anything to do.

Holbrook:

Yeah. She did everything.

Somanah:

She…

Holbrook:

She had her contacts —

Somanah:

Maybe she’s becoming her own — Sometime maybe you’ll meet her.

Holbrook:

Oh, I have to meet her!

Somanah:

Very strong, strong personality.

Holbrook:

I have to meet her!

Somanah:

Yeah, very strong personality.

Holbrook:

Yeah. Good for her. Good for her. But it’s nice that you have the life-work balance worked out so nicely.

Somanah:

Yeah. But I see some other colleagues whose wives are more introverted feminine types staying at home, not doing things outside. I realize I am lucky to have her as wife.

Holbrook:

Yeah. She takes charge.

Somanah:

Yeah. She’s a producer.

Holbrook:

Yeah. That’s great. You’re going to have good kids.

Somanah:

I think it’s good you meet her because then you’ll know what I’m talking about! [Laughter]

Holbrook:

Yeah. I’m looking forward to it; I am. So we should go ahead and wrap up if you have to be somewhere. So thank you so much. Have people done other interviews with you?

Somanah:

Not like that.

Holbrook:

Okay, not so in depth. [Yes.] So the only thing I’m concerned about —

Somanah:

That’s the first time I’ve been interviewed in depth.

Holbrook:

Yeah. It’s an oral history, right? [Yes.] The only thing I’m concerned about is the comments about the RRI advisor, so we have to look at that. We’ll get the transcript and we’ll look at it very carefully together about what should be included and what should be taken out. Okay?

Somanah:

Yeah, no problem.

Holbrook:

All right. Thank you so much!