BBC News - Ashoke Sen: India's million-dollar scientist
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
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
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
This theory automatically
combines quantum mechanics, and general relativity - Einstein's theory of
It also has the potential for
explaining the other known forces of
nature - strong, weak and
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
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
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".
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,"