Kandiah Shivanandan The big bang brighter than a thousand suns

Kandiah Shivanandan worked on infrared detector technology at the Naval Research Laboratory. Since retirement he has been active in giving lectures to young astronomers and to the (general public. He is writing a book, Stars to Atoms to Cells.

I have taken the title from a passage from the Bhagavad Gita which has been translated as

If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One

When I was six years old in Malaysia, I used to look at the night skies and wonder whether there are human beings up there. In early 1950, as an undergraduate in physics at the University of Melbourne in Australia, I lived with Jesuits for a year, and we had discussions of religion and cosmology. I used to read extensively books by Einstein, Hoyle, and Gamow. Though my major was not in astrophysics or cosmology, I always took an interest in it during my undergraduate and graduate studies, attending seminars and visiting astronomical telescope sites, including the Parkes Radio Telescope where I analyzed data. During my graduate days at MIT I worked part time at American Science and Engineering with Riccardo Giacconi, Herbert Gursky, and Bruno Rossi on the first rocket-borne X-ray astronomy experiment. It detected an X-ray source in the Scorpius region of the sky (Giacconi et al. 1962).

In early 1960 I joined the NRL Astronomy Group under Herbert Friedman in Washington, DC. There UV and X-ray rocket-borne experiments for astronomy were being developed. Herb wanted to start an infrared program. Martin Harwit came to the NRL for a year as a visiting scientist, and he and I worked together to develop the first liquid-nitrogen-cooled rocket-borne sensor for near-infrared astronomical measurements.

With the discovery of the CMBR by Penzias and Wilson (1965a), Friedman suggested that we adapt our program to longer wavelengths, in the range of 10-1300 ^m, which would include the predicted peak of the CMBR. We would use liquid-helium-cooled sensors. Harwit returned to Cornell and independently developed a similar program. There was an active technology transfer between the two groups. The semiconductor branch at the NRL had developed a sensitive 800-1300 ^m detector cooled to 4.2 K and more adaptable for a rocket experiment than previous bolometers that had to operate at lower temperatures. Friedman suggested that I could use the project for my PhD thesis. Professor Clyde Cowan (with Frederick Reines, discoverer of the neutrino), who was at the Catholic University of America, and Friedman were my thesis advisors. Harwit also invited me to participate in his rocket experiments using the detector developed at the NRL, and I spent time at Cornell in integrating the detector with the system.

The NRL system flights had technology problems, but the Cornell flights were successful. Our preliminary observations indicated that the effective blackbody temperature of the radiation background at wavelengths in the range 0.4-1.3 mm is about 8K (Shivanandan, Houck and Harwit 1968). That is larger than the effective blackbody temperature measured from the ground at longer wavelengths (and we now know that was caused by emission by local sources that entered our detector). But I was exhilarated. It was the first background radiation measurement done close to the CMBR peak.

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