The Journey

T.S. Gopi Rethinaraj

Professor, Physics, Sustainability and Public Policy,
School of Arts and Sciences.

A science journalist who trained in physics and nuclear engineering with broad and interdisciplinary interests in international security, public policy, energy sustainability and climate change, Prof T S Gopi Rethinaraj has switched careers and traversed different academic fields over the past 25 years. He has taught and conducted research at some of the leading universities in USA, Singapore, India, Japan, and Kazakhstan and held leadership positions in arts and sciences, engineering, and public policy. 

Gopi’s idyllic childhood was in Thanjavur, where his grandfather had settled post retirement from the Indian Navy. He completed his schooling in Thanjavur where he spent more time in cocurricular activities than studies. He played cricket and football for the school team. It was his proximity to the Physical Training (PT) Instructor that drew him to physics. It so happened that the PT Instructor was also his science teacher and the fondness for the teacher slowly developed into a love for the subject he taught.

While most of his school classmates went to study engineering and medicine, Gopi went to AVVM Sri Pushpam College near Thanjavur to study physics. His five-year stay in this college proved to be a turning point in his intellectual development. Gopi moved back to his ancestral village to live with his parents during college and enjoyed the daily 15-km cycling routine along the banks of the Cauvery and lush green countryside to reach college every day. The college library became his favourite haunt. So regular was he that the librarian would hand over the keys to him to lock up after he was done reading. 

The college library housed many famous textbooks and classics in physics authored by Feynman, Landau and Lifshitz, Dirac, Einstein, and others. It was there that he read Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy that sparked his interest in. Not that he understood everything he read then. “Perhaps I grasped 30-40 per cent of what I read,” he says. Quite clearly the college library played a significant role in shaping his personality including his current obsession in building a personal library. By the time he completed his post-graduation in physics, he had set his eyes on becoming a theoretical physicist but knew not how. Neither his college professors nor family and friends knew much about the way forward. He only knew that he did not have the training and exposure to pursue a PhD program.

Gopi left for what was then Bombay in search of employment opportunities. His first stint was in a consumer durables company doing “boring” research to improve the quality of mosquito and cockroach repellents. The strict 9-5 job held no appeal. A family friend who was the news editor of the Indian Express suggested that he try his hand at journalism. And so, he did. Given his science background, he was allotted the science beat. The casual environment in the newsroom, the collegiality, the use of the first name by all and the mixed marriages so common then, were a huge culture shock to the small-town boy. 

Just a few months into his job as a reporter, in 1996, Gopi wrote a series of articles and on safety lapses in various facilities managed by the Department of Atomic Energy. It was a damning expose´ that was featured on Page 1 of the newspaper. Following this, he wrote extensively on nuclear power and nuclear weapons issues. The power of journalist to intervene in the interest of public safety and public interest strengthened his resolve to make a career in journalism and theoretical physics faded into the distance. Two years later, during one of the routine press briefings at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), he came across a published technical report that suggested India could be on the verge of acquiring thermonuclear weapons capability. After a few months of research, he wrote a story that was deemed too sensitive to publish in an Indian newspaper. Although he managed to publish that story and a few others in the prestigious Jane’s Intelligence Review, he realised that his days as a journalist were drawing close.

India’s 1998 nuclear tests and the international repercussions it generated provided an interesting context to Gopi’s nuclear reporting during 1995-1999, and it helped him win the prestigious Bulletin of Atomic Scientists fellowship. This fellowship took him to the University of Chicago where he researched on India’s nuclear safety policy and regulatory institutions. In order to improve his technical understanding, he enrolled into the nuclear engineering PhD program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He also undertook courses in nuclear engineering, economics, international security, and global studies to broaden his technical, social, and political understanding of military and civilian uses of nuclear energy.

He started his fulltime academic job in 2005 at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, Singapore and during the decade he also held visiting fellowships and professorships at various public policy schools in the US, Japan, and Kazakhstan. After living for 15 years abroad, Gopi relocated to India in 2014. He has since been a faculty member and the Academic Head of the PhD program in the National Institute of Advanced Sciences, a visiting professor at the Divecha Centre for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), the founding director and professor of energy sciences at Atria University in Bengaluru.  A consultant for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) since 2008, he has taught executive education programs for senior and mid-career professionals from various government and non-profit agencies in India and other developing countries of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.  Gopi also managed a major multi-institution project on renewable energy technologies supported by the Indian Ministry of Science and Technology and wrote a report commissioned by NITI Aayog on the privatization prospects of nuclear power in India. 

Gopi passionately believes that scientists in academia have an individual moral and social responsibility to engage with the public and lawmakers. He frequently makes the case for scientists to take up ‘public interest science’ on issues where the public lacks credible independent sources of information and analysis. 

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