The global effort celebrates pure science as a curiosity-driven exercise.
The latest revelations on the existence of the Higgs boson highlight an interesting link that India shares with basic science.
The boson in the name gets its name from Satyendranath Bose. According to the Standard Model in physics, there are two kinds of fundamental particles — bosons and fermions (after the Italian physicist, Enrico Fermi). The Higgs particle, a boson, was first postulated in a 1964 paper by the Scottish scientist, Dr Peter Higgs.
Interestingly, Bose along with Albert Einstein also postulated the existence of a state of matter called the Bose-Einstein condensate in 1924-25. The slowing down of atoms by the use of cooling apparatus (say, lasers) produced the condensate, which was established by scientists in 1995 and has increasing applications. In both instances, the Indian scientist has remained in the shadows.
In the great cosmic drama of the evolution of stars, it took nearly 50 years for the seminal work of Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar to be recognised. His paper in 1935 postulating what later became known as the ‘Chandrasekhar limit’ was ridiculed by Sir Arthur Eddington, a famous astrophysicist of that time.
However, the Chandrasekhar limit, which is the maximum mass of a white dwarf star or the minimum mass above which a star will collapse into a black hole, won him the Nobel prize in 1983. His monumental work has unleashed a spate of research into stars and black holes.
One other fundamental theory that still lingers on is the Fred Hoyle-Jayanth Narlikar’s alternative model to the popular Big Bang model of the birth and evolution of the universe.
A distinguished astrophysicist, Fred Hoyle and Dr Narlikar proposed the Quasi-Steady State cosmology. It suggests that pockets of creation occur over time within the universe. Sometimes they are referred to as mini-bangs or mini-creation events.
There are essentially two theories about the origin and evolution of the universe — the Big Bang theory and the Steady State theory. The work of Hoyle and Dr Narlikar is overshadowed by the growing support for the Big Bang theory, which has gained more observational evidence and finds continuous research, as the CERN project is testimony.
The most extraordinarily original contributor, however, remains the genius, Srinivasa Ramanujam. For decades, the work of the mathematical wizard who died in his thirties during the early part of the 20th century was least recognised.
His correspondence with the British mathematician, G.H. Hardy, who considered him in the same league as Euler and Gauss, is now well-known.
A common thread running through all these big science pursuits is a significant contribution from India and Indian scientists. Interestingly, in most cases the recognition to the work of the Indians has come after a long time. Nevertheless, the long-term implications for the progress of science are there for everyone to see.
Now that the first evidence of the Higgs boson is just out, after decades of speculation, theory and the recent, intense search by scientists at the Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, one of the basic questions being asked is what are its implications.
Are there any practical applications that would emerge from this multi-billion-dollar global scientific effort, what has also come to be known as the search for the God particle?
Most fundamental science is essentially curiosity-driven. “The CERN project is entirely driven by curiosity, to know more about nature, the pursuit is to find the missing links in a cosmic puzzle and prove whether the Standard Model is true,” says Dr Sridhara Dasu, an Indian-origin physicist with the University of Wisconsin and associated with the project since 1993.
However, the spin-offs of such a gigantic project are many. The sheer engineering effort to build a 27-km circumference tunnel on the Swiss-French border (only railroad projects are longer) itself is a technical marvel. It happens to be the largest scientific instrumentation ever built.
The accelerators, detectors and magnets have applications in medicine, scientific experiments and many industries, he explains.
The technologies that have been tried at the CERN have resulted in many patents. The new communication medium, the quantum jump in computing power, the sophisticated electronics and designing capabilities have all been of high order. Several countries participating in the project are deriving the benefits of these technological fall-out.
Another significant contribution of this long-term global project has been the top-class technical manpower it has produced. Training people to be curiosity-driven at the top of science is a big future investment.
For example, several people who have moved away into different areas, are not just doing well, but are contributing to innovations in their fields.
India in big projects
In the case of India, the commitment to the Large Hadron Collider is said to be of the order of Rs 250 crore in scientific equipment. In addition there are large number of research students and groups working on software development and various aspects of the project.
The institutes under the Department of Atomic Energy have built instruments, software and components that go into the accelerator as well as hundreds of magnets; so have a few Indian companies that have gone into the construction of the Collider, the biggest atom smasher.
India is at present involved in other big physics projects as well. Two examples are the over €10-billion International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor and the multi-billion-euro Facility for Anti-proton Ion Research, an accelerator in Germany.
The Electronics Corporation of India Ltd, Hyderabad, is fabricating hi-tech power converters worth around Rs 100 crore for these projects. It plans to outsource a significant portion to the domestic industry as well. The true spin-off of big collaborative projects should be manifested in creating capabilities in Indian industry and raise the level of research among the young scientists.