Eminent physicist Bikash Sinha who probed a primordial state of matter called the quark-gluon plasma and inspired Indian scientists into joining global experiments, including those that led to the 2012 discovery of the elusive subatomic particle named the Higgs boson, died on Friday. He was 78.
Sinha, former director of the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC) and the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) in Kolkata, was also widely known in scientific circles for his efforts to bridge what he often described as “the gulf between the sciences and humanities”.
He had been suffering from old age-related ailments for some time. But that didn’t hold him back from attending, albeit on a wheelchair, an international scientific conference — the eighth in a series he had started in Mumbai in 1988 — in Puri, Odisha, in February this year. He told fellow participants there that he intended to attend the next one, too.
“Even though wheelchair-bound, he displayed energy and enthusiasm for the subject,” said Subhasis Chattopadhyay, the head of the experimental high energy physics and applications group at the VECC, who was the chair of the organising committee for the Puri conference.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee in a condolence message on Twitter said: “An illustrious son of Bengal, this talented nuclear physicist made us proud by his contributions to not only the world of knowledge but also ongoing public life. We could confer on him our highest state award ‘Bangabibhushan’ in 2022 and his personal presence on the dais inspired us. We could give him Rabindra Smriti Purashkar too in 2022.”
A Canadian physics institution once described Sinha’s career as “a sustained record of excellence and creative contribution to research, teaching and leadership.” And fellow scientists have applauded what they viewed as his passion and use of personal contacts to help get Indian scientists footholds to participate in pathbreaking experiments in Europe and North America.
Sinha graduated from Kolkata’s Presidency College in 1964 before moving to Cambridge first, then King’s College London in the UK, developing a lifelong interest in subatomic particle physics that he continued to nurture after returning to India in 1976 to join the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre.
He became VECC director in 1987 where, through the 1990s and 2000s, he inspired a generation of scientists — Chattopadhyay among the many others — to contribute to experiments at CERN (European Centre for Nuclear Research) in Switzerland and the Brookhaven National Laboratory in the US.
“He played a critical role in laying the foundations and opening up avenues for Indian contributions to big experiments,” said Chattopadhyay. The experiments at CERN involved creating and studying quark-gluon plasma and the search leading to the discovery of the Higgs boson in 2012. The quark-gluon plasma is a state of matter that existed for a few microseconds after the birth of the universe.
In his post-retirement years, Chattopadhyay said, Sinha spent significant amounts of time attempting to convey the wonders of science to the public, often delivering lectures on astronomy or the origin of the universe in rural Bengal.
Sinha was concerned about what he once described as “a huge void in India” between the sciences and humanities.
“The work scientists do is at times not as comprehensible as art, dance or music,” Sinha had said during a talk in Burdwan in 2014. “But scientists themselves need to wake up — they spend enormous public funds for research. It is their duty to explain what they’re doing in plain language.”