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Predhiman Kaw, founder of India’s fusion program and former PPPL physicist, is dead at age 69

Predhiman Kaw, an internationally-known plasma physicist who is considered the father of India’s nuclear fusion program, was remembered fondly by his colleagues at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) last week after they learned of Kaw’s June 19 death.  He was 69. 

Kaw was a physicist at Princeton University and PPPL’s Theory Department for 11 years before moving back to his native country to help establish India’s Institute for Plasma Research (IPR) and lead the effort to build India’s first tokamak, the ADITYA. He also was a major driver for India to join six other partners on the international fusion experiment ITER.   

“He was an indefatigable champion of fusion internationally,” said Amitava Bhattacharjee, head of PPPL’s Theory and Computation Department. “He was a world leader whose work touched upon nearly every aspect of plasma physics ” 

“Predhiman was a remarkable person, an inspiring leader of the program he created in India and a world leading theoretical physicist,” said Steven Cowley, president of Corpus Christi College in Oxford, former director of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and a former colleague of Kaw’s at PPPL. “He will be missed by many.”

The physicist died at his home in Ahmedabad after suffering a cardiac arrest, according to P. K. Atrey, acting chief administrator of IPR. He is survived by his wife of 43 years, Saroj Kaul, a physician; and three grown children, Sidhartha, Prashant, and Pooja. 

Kaw had continued his physics research until the end of his life. ResearchGate lists 457 publications for him and 7,588 citations. 

“It is a huge and irreparable loss to the whole nation at large and IPR in particular,” said Chenna Reddy, dean of IPR. 

PhD at age 18

Predhiman Krishan Kaw was born in 1948 in Srinagar, India. He was a prodigy who graduated from Agra University at age 14 and received his PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology in Dehli in 1966 at age 18. He came to PPPL as a postdoctoral fellow in 1967 at age 19 and became a researcher and Princeton University lecturer in 1969 at age 21.

Physicist Russell Kulsrud, who is retired from PPPL, recalled Kaw as a young man with an impressive resume. “When he came here he was 19 years old and he had already written 20 papers,” he said. “When he attacked a problem, he didn’t mess around. He went right to the heart of it.” 

“It took me a little time to recognize that I needed to listen carefully to Predhiman’s gentle prodding,” Cowley recalled of his collaboration with Kaw. “He was never forceful but he was almost always right.” 

Kaw left PPPL in 1971 and returned to India for four years  where he was a professor at the Physical Research Laboratory. He returned to PPPL in 1975 as a principal research physicist and a lecturer in Princeton’s Astrophysical Sciences Department. 

A dynamic lecturer

Bhattacharjee said Kaw was his first lecturer in graduate school in 1977 when Kaw was just 29. “He was a very dynamic lecturer, lucid and insightful, and very much in command,” Bhatacharjee recalled. 

PPPL physicist John Krommes, a former colleague of Kaw’s, said Kaw was a gifted teacher and colleague.  “He was gentle, kind, very interested in the well-being of his students,” Krommes said. “He was the kind of person one would like to emulate. He was a pure gentleman and humble in spite of the fact that he was super-bright.” 

“There was no doubt he was going to be a leader, none whatsoever,” said another former colleague, physicist Ernest Valeo.  “His intellect was obvious and he had a great breadth of interests. He delved into lots of topics.” 

Physicist Roscoe White, a friend and colleague of Kaw’s who collaborated with him on five publications, recalled his many good conversations with Kaw about E.M. Forester’s “A Passage to India,” and the role of England in India. White recalled Kaw’s “good sense of humor. He was very intuitive,” he said. “He liked to find elegant analytic solutions to things.” 

Starting India’s nuclear fusion program

In the early 1980s, Kaw and some of his colleagues convinced the Department of Science and Technology in the Government of India to set up a major program in fusion and plasma physics. Kaw returned to India in 1982 to direct the program, which began at the PRL, and eventually separated to become its own institution in 1986. Kaw remained director until he retired in 2012. The institute was taken over by India’s Department of Atomic Energy in 1996, which provided more funding for its fusion experiments. 

Kaw was one of the leaders of the institute’s project to design and fabricate an advanced steady-state tokamak SST-1, which is being commissioned and uses superconducting magnets, the first of its kind in India. He held an endowed professorship at the IPR until his death. 

India joins ITER

A major proponent of nuclear fusion, Kaw led the effort for India to join the international ITER experiment in 2005. The massive project is currently under construction in France.  Kaw chaired the Science and Technology Advisory Committee of the ITER Council in 2007. 

A fellow of the American Physical Society and the Indian National Science Academy, Kaw won numerous awards during his career, including India’s prestigious Padma Shri award in 1985. In 2016, he received the Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar Prize of Plasma Physics from the Association of Asia-Pacific Physical Societies for his contributions in the areas of laser-plasma interactions, strongly coupled dusty plasmas, and turbulence in magnetic fusion devices. 

Bernard Bigot, Director-General of the ITER Organization, sent Kaw a congratulatory letter after her received the prize, thanking him for his work to promote India becoming an ITER partner and for his research.  “Over a long and productive career you have greatly enriched our understanding of physics processes in very different types of plasma with important implications for applications in many areas of modern plasma research,” Bigot wrote.

Nat Fisch, associate director for academic affairs, recalled a “wonderful collaboration” with Kaw, although it never resulted in a paper. The two kept in touch since overlapping at Princeton. Fisch and Krommes attended a symposium in honor of Kaw’s birthday in India a few years ago where they gave talks in his honor. Kaw in turn gave a lecture at the symposium in honor of Fisch’s 65th birthday at PPPL and Princeton University last year. 

“What impressed me was his style in physics,” Fisch said. “He was a deep thinker, and it wasn’t just about physics, it was about life in general. He was a guy I would have conversations with about the meaning of life. He was not just a colleague on a one-dimensional scale. He was a multi-dimensional person with whom you had multifaceted conversations, both within and without the context of plasma physics.”   

Kaw outlined his vision for fusion energy in his 1992 talk for the Artsimovich Memorial Lecture at the 14th IAEA Conference on Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion in Wurzburg Germany.  “I think that it is time to reorient ourselves and define a new goal which I would like to put down as follows,” he said. “We must bring fusion systems to a level such that fusion power is considered as a credible energy alternative on the fastest, technically realistic, time scale. We must demonstrate generation of fusion electricity as early as possible and show that it is environmentally better than the other competing energy sources.” 

PPPL, on Princeton University's Forrestal Campus in Plainsboro, N.J., is devoted to creating new knowledge about the physics of plasmas — ultra-hot, charged gases — and to developing practical solutions for the creation of fusion energy. The Laboratory is managed by the University for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the largest single supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States, and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit science.energy.gov

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Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory is a U.S. Department of Energy national laboratory managed by Princeton University.

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