Ashoke Sen: India's million-dollar scientist

Professor Ashoke Sen
Image caption Professor Ashoke Sen does not know yet what he will do with the $3m windfall

Indian scientist Ashoke Sen became a millionaire overnight when he won the $3m (£1.9m) Fundamental Physics Prize, the world's most lucrative academic award, recently. Science writer Pallava Bagla speaks to the physicist.

Ashoke Sen is a shy, reclusive Indian particle physicist working from a non-descript laboratory in the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in the not-so-happening town of Allahabad in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh.

Yet, today he is one of the richest professors in the world, having been conferred the award which has prize money almost three times that of a Nobel Prize in Physics.

At his current monthly salary of about 150,000 rupees ($2,721; £1,742), it would have taken him about 83 years of continuous work to earn as much as that.

The new prize was set up by the Russian internet entrepreneur, Yuri Milner - some are calling it the "Russian Nobel Prize".

In its inaugural year, it has also been awarded to eight others and Prof Sen is the only Indian to bag the award along with scientists working in the US and Russia.

Prof Sen works in an esoteric branch of physics called "string theory", which he has been refining for the last two decades.

It is a complex mathematical theory that hopes to explain almost everything we know about the matter and energy in the universe.

He describes the string theory as being based "on the idea that the elementary constituents of matter are not point particles, but one dimensional objects or strings. This theory automatically combines quantum mechanics, and general relativity - Einstein's theory of gravity. It also has the potential for explaining the other known forces of nature - strong, weak and electromagnetic forces".

The mathematical theory itself still cannot be proved or disproved since atom smashers like those at Cern in Geneva have still not attained the enormous energies needed to test the string theory.


Prof Sen says he was "surprised" on being given the award since he had not heard about it until he received a phone call from Mr Milner. But his bank balance has suddenly swollen thanks to the phone call.

He is relishing the moment and has not thought of retiring just yet.

"It is wonderful that we have an Indian physicist getting recognised in a big way for fundamental research. This is great news for science in India," said the prime minister's science adviser CNR Rao.

Prof Sen's wife Sumathi Rao is also a physicist who works at the same institute with him and they have no children.

The professor, who is fond of walking, says he has no hobby other than cooking and he likes to make tasty fried fish for his friends and family.

For somebody working on the frontiers of knowledge, Prof Sen admits he has "absolutely no religious inclinations", though he respects all faiths.

On more earthly matters, Mr Sen says he has not thought about what he is going to do with this windfall.

But unless he or his parent institution, the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), applies for a tax exemption from the government, he could end up losing as much as $1m (£638,000) of the prize money in taxes.

Ratan Kumar Sinha, a nuclear engineer and head of the DAE, says "since this is a rare recognition, we can make an attempt to get a special waiver of taxes for this award".

Ashoke Sen though says he "is happy to pay the tax that is due".

'Bright future'

Prof Sen, son of a physics teacher, was educated in the University of Calcutta before proceeding to the Stony Brook University in America.

Unlike many others, he chose to return and work in India.

So has he faced any disadvantages of working in India?

"In theoretical physics one can in principle work from any place as long as one has a computer and internet connection. So I do not find any disadvantage of being in Allahabad," he says.

His batchmate from Stony Brook and well-known theoretical physicist Rohini Godbole says she "feels on top of the world", more so because Prof Sen recently said "there are no excuses for theoretical physicists not to perform and deliver".

Ms Godbole says that Ashoke Sen has "delivered" and it proves that the particle physics community in India has really come of age.

Ashoke Sen echoes the feelings - "Indian science has a bright future," he says.

Pallava Bagla is a correspondent for Science and Science Editor for New Delhi Television

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