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  Books   16 Mar 2018  The man who beat Hawking at more than table tennis

The man who beat Hawking at more than table tennis

Published : Mar 16, 2018, 1:22 am IST
Updated : Mar 16, 2018, 1:22 am IST

Hawking had posed a query and this was clarified by Narlikar, saying that Hawking had missed the “non-linear” character of his presentation.

Stephen Hawking passes away at 76 (Photo: AFP)
 Stephen Hawking passes away at 76 (Photo: AFP)

The rivalry between Oxford and Cambridge universities is intense and legendary. Both have hotly contested claims to superiority and tend to look down the British aristocratic nose at each other. Oxford always figured in Cambridge’s reckoning as “the other place” where one went if you didn’t get a First in your undergraduate at Cambridge. The rivalry was also reflected in the punting competition over the river Cam with Cambridge not only claiming superiority in the boat race but also asserting the Cam was superior to the river Isis bordering Oxford.

I got a taste of this when I had to accompany the then vice-chancellor of Oxford university to meet Dr Shankar Dayal Sharma, then President of India, at Rashtrapathi Bhavan. Now Dr Sharma was a Cambridge man having got his PhD in chemistry in the university some years ago and the V-C, Sir Peter North (subsequently elevated to a peerage) was forewarned! Sure enough, Dr Sharma started by welcoming Sir Peter and then said but Oxford was always as “the other place”. Not so, stoutly remonstrated the V-C. Oxford is now known as “the place”. Good humour and banter peppered the subsequent conversation reinforced by the gifts the V-C had thoughtfully carried over from Oxford. The meeting ended with the V-C being invited to a state banquet the next day!


This rivalry extends to the presses too, the publishing arm of both universities, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press. Not the least was rival claims as to who was older! CUP reckoned its establishment from a charter given by the king in the mid-14th century to print Bibles and other manner of things though its first book rolled out from the press many years later. Against this, OUP had a definite date for the first book published, the Book of St. Jerome, in 1478. This was impressive considering that William Caxton, the celebrated printer, had established the first printing press in England at Westminster Abbey only in 1476. It didn’t help matters for OUP that in its first printing, the metal type set by hand saw a Latin numeral turned upside down at the last minute, thus the first book printed by OUP had a historic misprint!


This rivalry between the two universities is echoed in Jayant Narlikar’s My Tale of Four Cities, originally published in Marathi as Chaar Nagrantale Majhe Vishwa and now translated into English. The four cities which shaped Narlikar’s life are Banaras, Cambridge, Mumbai and Pune. Writing an autobiography or a biography is a craft. In fact, it was a number of requests to write his biography that prompted  Narlikar to pen his life’s story.

It’s a story worth telling — of an academic career dotted with accolades and honours, of a celebrated astrophysicist and astronomer honoured both at home and abroad. As a scientist, writing your autobiography can be tricky. How much of one’s own life happenings to tell and, more importantly, how much of science? The interests of the reader have to be kept in mind and once the book is out it’s in the public domain and anyone can read and, have an opinion on it.


It’s to Narlikar’s credit that he draws in the reader and keeps him engaged.  Narlikar came from a typical Maharashtrian middle class family and having an academic for a father, who taught mathematics at the Banaras Hindu University, it was almost ordained that he would take to academics. The academic records of two maternal uncles, one of whom used to pose intricate maths problems for him to solve on the blackboard at home only reinforced this. Similar was the choice of going to Cambridge for higher studies. His father and uncle had preceded him.

At Cambridge, Narlikar makes light of his achievements and writes about trying to manage his finances. In the initial years, supported by a Tata Endowment scholarship, and some other stipends, Narlikar managed to limit his expenses to about £530 a year, a figure well below the Reserve Bank of India norm and an uncomfortable example to other scholars. He completed the Maths tripos in record time and was unfortunate to find a guide and mentor for higher studies in Fred Hoyle, one of the world’s leading authorities in astronomy and gravitational theory. His PhD degree was awarded under somewhat unusual circumstances. Narlikar’s examiners for the viva voce were the illustrious scientists Hermann Bondi and Dennis Sciama.


A meeting had been convened at Cornell on the Nature of Time. Narlikar was an invitee along with Fred Hoyle, Richard Feynman, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, and others. Bondi was one of the co-conveners. Permission to conduct the viva at Cornell was given by Cambridge on the condition that it would entail no additional expense! In the event, Bondi and Sciama conducted the viva examination on the day Narlikar had spoken at the conference — it was held between the lunch break and the afternoon session.

Narlikar answered the three questions posed by the examiners and was soon dismissed. Narlikar’s presentation at the conference and his defence against probing questions by Feynman had impressed them enough!


Narlikar had the great satisfaction of seeing his parents attend Cambridge and watch him being awarded the PhD degree in person. Throughout his Cambridge years, Narlikar speaks about his great respect and admiration for Fred Hoyle and being an extended member of Hoyle’s family. This also meant trekking with Hoyle for he was a passionate trekker, a trait he shared with another physicist, Abraham Pais.

In spite of a brilliant career in Cambridge and numerous offers of tenured positions in prestigious universities, including Cambridge, the US and Europe, Narlikar was a bit of a homespun bird. He returned to India on a permanent basis, initially staying in Mumbai and then finally settling down in Pune to set up the prestigious Inter-University Centre for Astrophysics.


Narlikar had always intended to return to India after becoming a Cambridge don and his fellowship at the prestigious King’s College ran out. Being a Fellow of King’s College conveyed quaint privileges, like entitlement to walking on the college lawns, a privilege he shared with E.M. Forster. He could also walk the streets of Cambridge without the customary gown and once the University Proctor’s minions realised they were challenging a college fellow, they politely doffed their hats and moved away.

Much was reported in the media about a confrontation between Narlikar and Hoyle on the one hand and Stephen Hawking, who passed away this week, on the other.


I had written to Narlikar about this. He clarified then and also states in the book. Biographers of Hawking and the media had taken liberties with the truth.

Narlikar had explained some of his theories on an expanding universe at a meeting in his department where Sciama and Hawking had been present prior to a joint presentation by him and Hoyle to the Royal Society.

Hawking had posed a query and this was clarified by Narlikar, saying that Hawking had missed the “non-linear” character of his presentation. The same query was posed by Hawking at the Royal Society and this too was clarified by Narlikar. The hype in the media was due to Hawking’s subsequent iconic status. It could also be attributed to the fact that Narlikar had once beaten Hawking in table tennis!


The writer is a senior publishing industry professional who has worked with OUP and is now a senior consultant with Ratna Sagar Books

Tags: stephen hawking, banaras hindu university