This came close on the heels of their first announcement in February 2016, which opened a new window to the study of the cosmos. The study proved that Albert Einstein was spot on when a century ago he predicted the existence of gravitational waves in his general theory of relativity.
Back home, the mega achievement in physics and astronomy brought smiles on the faces of 39 Indian scientists who found a mention in the study.
The detection of gravitational waves, an experiment involving diverse technologies
Science of gravitational waves, analysis of the data on the Higgs boson (a particle in the Standard Model of physics), building of the world’s largest and advanced telescope — welcome to the world of mega science, a landscape where Indian scientists are collaborating, participating and delivering components for some of the most ambitious global science projects. At a time when India is battling brain drain of epidemic proportions, these giant projects are opening new vistas for young innovators.
India and the God Particle
CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), the world’s largest nuclear and particle physics laboratory, has seen many Indian scientists and engineers showcasing their acumen.
In recent years, Indian scientists have helped build CERN’s Large Hadron Collider (LHC), with design, development and hardware contributions. The LHC, the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, is considered the most complex experimental facility ever built and is the largest single machine in the world. India is poised to become an associate member of CERN by the end of 2016.
This will allow India to propose new experiments and enable Indian scientists to participate in CERN’s training and career-development programmes and take up positions at CERN. More importantly, India will be entitled to attend open and restricted sessions of the organisation, thereby helping in steering its science policy.
Of the four large experiments at the LHC, Indians are collaborating in two: ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) and CMS. About 100 scientists from India are playing significant roles in ALICE in the search and study of matter in extreme conditions of temperature and density, which might have existed within a few microseconds of the birth of our universe.
Another group of 100 scientists has been playing major roles in the CMS experiment, which is one of the two experiments that discovered the Higgs boson, the so-called God Particle.
“The India-CERN association as a whole is interdisciplinary in nature and the involvement of physicists and hardware and software engineers paves the path for overall knowledge development in the best possible way. The spinoff from our collaboration with CERN has been far-reaching and significant for the industrial sector,” says Tapan Nayak, a coordinator with ALICE.
Gravitational Wave Analysis
The Indian team in the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) scientific collaboration has about 60 members, 39 of whom are authors in the detection papers.
LIGO is a large-scale physics experiment and observatory to detect cosmic gravitational waves and to develop gravitational-wave observations as an astronomical tool.
The Indian scientists are involved in analysing the data of LIGO observatories. Specific contributions involve development and implementation of methods to test Einstein’s theory of general relativity using gravitationalwave observations, methods to distinguish between actual gravitational wave triggers and transient noise events in the data.
LIGO operates two gravitational wave observatories in unison in the US, one in Livingston, Louisiana, and the other near Richland, Washington. Work is on to set up an observatory in India which, when completed, will be the fifth in the world (after Italy and Japan, which are in the works).
“A frontier science experiment on Indian soil will be a source of inspiration and will present challenging careers in science and technology for the youth of India. It will be a significant step toward reversing brain drain by attracting back to India the top talent working in foreign laboratories and institutions,” says Tarun Souradeep, project coordinator between the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, and LIGO India.
IUCAA is one of the three Indian institutes collaborating with the LIGO Labs operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech); the other two are the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore, and the Institute for Plasma Research, Ahmedabad.
Most Advanced Telescope
The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) will be the world’s most advanced and capable ground-based optical, near-infrared and mid-infrared observatory. The project was to come up in Hawaii but had to be stalled because of local protests.
Ladakh is proposed as an alternative for the new site, the other being Chile. This will integrate the latest innovations in precision control, segmented mirror design and adaptive optics. At the heart of the telescope is a segmented mirror, made up of 492 individual segments. Precisely aligned, these segments will work as a single reflective surface of 30 m in diameter.
The TMT project is a partnership between Caltech and other universities in the US, Canada, Japan, China and India. Eswar Reddy, project director of TMT India, says the telescope project will propel India into a special league.
“We are contributing more in kind; financially it is 10% of the total cost. We will work on how to make the 492 segments align as a single mirror. We are also expected to deliver the edge sensors and develop various prototypes. A team will shortly visit India to check on the suitability of Ladakh as the telescope construction site.”
The Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR-GmbH) at Darmstadt, Germany, the largest upcoming accelerator facility for basic science research, was formed in October 2010, with India as a founder member. The international facility, which will use high-intensity beams of antiprotons and ions of various species, will be used to perform research in the fields of atomic, nuclear, particle and plasma physics.
In India, the project being implemented jointly by the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Atomic Energy is being coordinated by the Indo-FAIR Coordination Centre (IFCC) at Bose Institute, Kolkata. Apart from several Indian industries involved in building the advanced FAIR accelerator equipment in the country, Indian scientists are working in 40 different groups spread across several institutions.
Subhasish Chattopadhyay, programme director, IFCC, maintains that the project has two specific goals: furthering scientific knowledge and mastering the most advanced technology. “Besides exploring the fundamental aspects of physics, it will also look into various eras of the evolution of the universe.”
The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) project is an international effort to build the world’s largest radio telescope, which will eventually have over a square kilometre of collecting area.
India has been an active participant in the scientific, technical and administrative activities of the SKA project since the initial days; it is now involved in several of the design work packages of SKA.
Since October 2013, Indian scientists from the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (NCRA-TIFR) have been leading a consortium of seven SKA member countries in the design of the telescope.
“India’s participation in the technical and scientific activities of the SKA mega-project provides an excellent opportunity for Indian science and technology to showcase its capabilities on the global stage, while at the same time giving ample scope to benefit from the development of next-generation technologies,” says Yashwant Gupta of NCRA-TIFR.
ITER, meaning “the way” in Latin, is the acronym for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor being constructed at Cadarache in the South of France. The Institute for Plasma Research (IPR), Ahmedabad, is contributing towards the building of the reactor’s gigantic cryostat, which is a step towards future production of electricity from fusion energy.
Nuclear fusion is the process in which the sun and the stars produce energy by fusing light nuclei of hydrogen. ITER will produce at least 10 times as much energy required to operate it. It will be built mostly through inkind contributions by seven partners. India, like other partners except for the host EU, will contribute 9.1% of the ITER construction cost (EU pays about 45%). Most of this will be in the form of components made by the Indian industry and delivered to ITER.
Says scientist RA Mashelkar: “Indian scientists cannot be on the periphery of science, they must be at the core. There is a pioneering Indian connection to what happened at CERN — Satyendra Nath Bose, after whom boson is named.”
Scientist Anil Kakodkar also feels that participation in mega science projects provides opportunities for Indian scientists and engineers as well as industries to become competent in futuristic technologies. “Although these projects do involve large financial outlays, by involving a larger number of S&T researchers and engineers, the per scientist outlay can become comparable with national average. This not only gives a much greater strength to our national scientific effort and related dividends but also makes the country technologically strong.”
Arun Srivastava, secretary, Atomic Energy Commission, maintains that the projects are so big that it is difficult for any one country to make it on its own. “Besides helping members to come on a common platform and learn from each other, these provide domestic industries with opportunities to compete and participate internationally.” For India it is, as he adds, “a win-win situation”.