Cern was born in 1954 — a phoenix rising from the ashes of war. At the beginning, and into the Sixties it was essentially for the Western countries, like Britain, France and Germany. By the Eighties countries from the eastern block, like Poland, started contributing substantially both in hardware and software. In 1991, Poland became a member state, followed by the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The chairperson of the Cern council happens to be Polish.
India joined the Cern global collaboration rather recently. A Tata Institute team from Mumbai started collaborating with Cern in the late Sixties, experimenting with the Bubble Chamber to track the trajectories of fundamental particles. That tradition went on unhindered, although the scale of Indian effort at Cern remained somewhat modest.
By the late Eighties, the collaboration expanded hugely, led by the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Calcutta. By the early Nineties, India had started making world-class contributions in building innovative detectors and in theoretical work. Soon, the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics also joined. By the mid-Nineties, India was considered a major player in Cern, with Indian scientists and engineers gaining a great deal of respect. But India was still an “observer”. It observes but cannot vote. Even now, Indians can participate in experiments but do not enjoy the authority to suggest an experiment, and major policy decisions remain outside India’s scope.
By early 21st century, the dream of establishing the most ambitious accelerator in human history, the Large Hadron Collider, was looking like a real possibility, designed to discover the Higgs Boson and have a peep at the state of the universe immediately after the Big Bang. Higgs Boson, the creator of mass, was discovered on July 4, 2012, in two detectors, with another detector providing a peep at the infant universe a millionth of a second after the Big Bang. Indians have been participating vigorously in all the detectors. Cern has now invited India to become an associate member — just short of a member state. This is being debated: the conservatives want to maintain status quo, the realists want to go ahead with it, and the dreamers argue that it should have been done already. To be an associate member would cost India about Rs 60 crore per year. What do we get out of it?
The maximum benefit goes to the high-tech industrial houses. Consider the concessions granted to associate member countries who are allowed to vie for Cern’s annual procurement contract, worth around Rs 2,000 crore, and the huge credibility these industrial houses would enjoy, leading to the rapid increase of their business. P. Sudhakar, former chairman and managing director of the Electronics Corporation India Ltd, tells me about Cern’s exacting standards: “They made us automate even the process of fixing screws, thereby ruling out the possibility of the slightest human error.” ECIL has now got a huge order from another project, Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research, at Darmstadt, where India is a stakeholder. The risk of going into technology in unchartered areas is not trivial, but once one succeeds, there is no looking back. Once India is a member, these companies can bid directly in the international market, riding on Cern.
At the core of this scenario is, of course, the real science. Once an associate member, India can propose experiments and will then be poised for a Nobel or two. The government is still dithering, while Pakistan is already an associate member. We must hurry up. In today’s world, science is moving very fast, and has no time for bureaucratic indecision and lethargy. Let us not miss the bus once again. We have become experts in missing buses by now. Let us, for a change, catch the bus and start riding on it — better still, driving it.