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FORWARD AT BREAKNECK SPEED

One has been in the business of science for a little over 40 years — and one has lived with science in many parts of the world: Cambridge, London, Copenhagen, California, Germany, Bombay and lately Calcutta. Most of the early part of one’s life has been spent as an individual scientist working with a group of scientists, essentially exchanging ideas and nothing more. At least, in the 1970s, that was the tradition in Europe. America was different, the telephone was used quite abundantly and some kind of wireless collaboration started evolving.

What matters, of course, is the kind of people around you. The Neils Bohr Institute in Copenhagen is very different from, say, London. With Aage Bohr, the son of Neils Bohr, already a Nobel laureate, and with a continuous traffic of exciting, extremely bright scientists from all parts of Europe and America, the atmosphere at Bohr institute was electric. Thus, as a theoretical physicist one was more dependent on brain than brawn; the company one kept acted as a spark for new ideas.

International collaboration, particularly large-scale collaboration of any kind, just did not exist. In India, except a relatively small but pioneering effort from Bombay working at CERN (LHC and Big Bang legend now), international collaboration was an unknown concept. Even marginal reference to international collaboration met with downright disgust, disregard, suspicion and ultimately rejection. “We have to build everything in India,” was the slogan. A fine spirit of patriotism, surely, but “we cannot build a CERN,” one argued, it is way beyond the financial resources of one country. “Then forget about CERN,” the elderly pundits asserted with dismissive gestures.

It was, however, getting abundantly clear that international collaboration was turning out more the norm than the exception across the world, particularly so when large scale computing was necessary. It was not just a coincidence that the concept of so-called globalization was being debated with a mix of tentative optimism and violent opposition. That was in the early Eighties of the last century.

In our anxiety we were faced with two “panic” signals. One is simple — if we do not take part in the international collaboration we are surely going to miss out on the high-quality, cutting-edge original science, on path-breaking discoveries, even the faintest possibility of a Nobel. The other “panic” signal was that the best will go abroad and nothing will progress in India.

We took the plunge, nevertheless; our first target was CERN in Geneva in search of a new state of matter, quark gluon plasma. The most fundamental particle, to date, is quark, three quarks make either a neutron or a proton; protons and neutrons with exchanging mesons make an atomic nucleus, the nucleus is at the centre of an atom; many atoms make a molecule, many molecules make enzyme protein and ultimately us, the homo sapiens.

We wanted to “see” the light from the quark gluon plasma. Initial efforts to get a financial grant got nowhere; the idea was rejected outright. Nobody had heard of quark gluon plasma and that too at CERN, within a time frame — impossible, they said. Besides, what about our enormous efforts in India? — they barked.

It was a heartbreaking, almost no-go situation. After struggling relentlessly, the government-appointed committee at last conceded us some “seed” money. The wonderful business of “seed” money is that once you get some, even a little, nobody can stop you that easily in future. Bingo! We started to build the now famous Photon Multiplicity Detector for CERN in collaboration with my good friend, Hans Gutbrod, already at CERN. In the beginning, even at CERN we were not taken very seriously — CERN is used to individual scientists coming to work from India and helping the efforts of CERN; CERN was not used to a whole group taking over, at that time.

The detector was built and got finished before its schedule. The young workers from all over India came and finished the job in record time; initial tests of the detector proved very encouraging.

After the first run at CERN and the discovery of “flow” in quark gluon plasma, the world and, of course, India, sat up and recognized our contribution. This was immediately followed by talks in conferences, awards and the usual laurels. The impossible, so to speak, had been made possible and the glory goes not to an individual but to the entire team, a new phenomenon in India, a paradigm shift in our outlook. The cynics and “no-no” types suddenly disappeared from the scene.

There was no looking back, we went across the Atlantic to the Brookhaven National Laboratory and set up a similar but more sophisticated detector, STAR, at the famous Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider; new discoveries poured in and the prestige of the group went up beyond all our expectations.

What about the “panic” on homeground? Curiously enough, the discipline, commitment and tight schedule that we had to adhere to flowed over, as it were, to our domestic efforts; performance levels went up, the desire to do well and do it in time suddenly became the rule and not the exception. Even the overall efficiency went up. The international effort helped the national effort and the national effort became the backbone of the international effort.

Almost overnight India had become a world player in this field, the incredible synergy between the national and the international effort tore apart national boundaries. From a cog in the wheel India became the wheel, from SPS at CERN to ALICE at Large Hadron Collider at CERN, exploring the wonderland of quarks, from the Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider at Brookhaven to Anti proton facility at Germany; here at home, from room temperature cyclotron to superconducting cyclotron to the medical cyclotron, the wheel turning at breakneck speed to move forward; at the end, there is very little doubt we shall be at the top, and have a brilliant peep at the Big Bang of the very beginning of the universe when the two nuclei collide at the Large Hadron Collider, very soon. After all we have the brain of five hundred million young people.

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