Meet Pranav Sivakumar, Indian Boy Who Made it Twice to Google Science Fair

An Automated Search for Gravitationally Lensed Quasars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey

Pranav Sivakumar

Even US President Barack Obama could not resist appreciation for Pranav Sivakumar, 15, an Indian American teenager who has made it twice to the Google Science Fair contest and was a runner-up in the 2013 National Spelling Bee.

When he told President Obama for has lauded a budding Indian-American astronomy buff who has the distinction of being the first person to be a Global Finalist in Google Science Fair twice.

Pranav Sivakumar was among those who attended White House Astronomy Night organized by Obama on Monday. Obama has full of praise for Pranav when he said, “When Pranav Sivakumar was six years old, he found an encyclopedia about famous scientists lying around the house.

At least he thinks it was lying around there. Actually, his parents probably were setting it out hoping he was going to run into it.”

Pranav has been fascinated with outer space ever since and on every Saturday morning, his parents drove him for an hour to an astrophysics lab for ‘Ask-A-Scientist’ class, where he had learned the ‘gravitational lensing of quasars’.

In his 8th grade at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, Illinois, Pranav received the Virgin Galactic Pioneer Award in September 2015 or his research on celestial objects called quasars, which appear unusually bright in the night sky.

Pranav is currently working to find galaxies dominated by dark matter in collaboration with a professor at the University of Chicago. Soon, he will visit Virgin Galactic’s Mojave Air and Spaceport to meet the company’s engineers, and also gets a personal tour of Virgin Galactic’s new spaceship.

“It has been an exciting journey. I plan to continue this research for many years, hoping to contribute at least a little to our understanding of dark matter and dark energy, which make up 95 per cent of the universe and determine its future,” says Pranav.

“Astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar is the scientist I admire the most. He was a leader who was not afraid to propose revolutionary ideas despite opposition from the establishment, and he pursued these ideas with great intensity. I am inspired by Chandrasekhar’s work ethic, adherence to principles, and humility,” says Pranav.

Sivakumar designed two successful algorithms for discovering quasars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS), expanding on research that earned him one of 15 Global Finalist awards in last year’s competition. The Google Science Fair is an international science and technology competition in which thousands of students post their science projects online to compete for more than $130,000 in scholarships, prizes, and international travel.

In addition to winning the Virgin Galactic Pioneer award and being the first ever repeat Google Science Fair Global Finalist, the 15-year-old is already an accomplished academic in several fields; he has won the Astronomical League’s National Young Astronomer Award, been named National Semifinalist twice in the prestigious Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, and placed second in the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

“Pranav’s impressive achievement in this worldwide competition reflects the hard work that he has undergone with the support of his faculty members, advisors, and peers at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy,” said IMSA President Dr. José M. Torres.

Pranav Sivakumar’s project, “An Automated Search for Gravitationally Lensed Quasars in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey,” allowed him to identify 109 new high probability quasar candidates in the SDSS, using two algorithms that he designed. Finding and studying these bright celestial objects gives insight into how much dark matter and dark energy exists in the universe, which could ultimately shed light on whether the universe will keep expanding, stop expanding, or collapse.

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