THE Physics, Physiology and Chemistry Nobels this year have quiet but deep connections to India, Indian scientists and institutes.
The Physics Nobel was awarded to Rainer Weiss, Barry C Barish and Kip S Thorne for “decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”.
It is well known that contributing to LIGO’s (Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) work are 37 Indian scientists from nine Indian institutions: Chennai Mathematical Institute; ICTS-TIFR, Bengaluru; IISER, Kolkata; IISER, Thiruvananthapuram; IIT, Gandhinagar; Institute for Plasma Research, Gandhinagar; Inter-University Centre for Astronomy & Astrophysics, Pune; Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore; and TIFR, Mumbai.
“These researchers made broad contributions to the discovery working within the international LIGO science collaboration… Aspects of research contributed from India include obtaining estimates of the mass and spin of the final black hole, and the energy and peak power radiated by the binary in gravitational waves, astrophysical interpretation, exquisite tests of Einstein’s gravitation in the so-called strong field limit, and distinguishing astrophysical signals from transient terrestrial noise in the data and instrument,” Professor Tarun Souradeep of the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, and spokesperson of LIGO-India, said.
Souradeep said IUCAA scientists led by Prof Sanjeev Dhurandhar initiated “foundational work” to develop data-analysis techniques to detect weak gravitational ripples buried in the detector’s transient noise, by looking for the best match between the calculated waveforms and the signal in the detector.
Another group led by Bala R Iyer (now at ICTS-TIFR) at Raman Research Institute, Bengaluru, working with French scientists, pioneered the intricate and detailed modelling of gravitational wave signals from black holes and neutron stars.
The Chemistry Nobel was awarded to Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank, and Richard Henderson “for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution”.
India has recently established its most advanced CryoEM facility for lifesciences at the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (InStem) in Bengaluru. Henderson and Indian-origin Nobel Laureate Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who won the Prize for Chemistry in 2009, played important roles in its establishment.
“Henderson and Venki are the two external scientists who have pushed this project forward along with Prof Ramaswamy at InStem, Prof Satyajit Mayor, Director of InStem and NCBS (National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bengaluru) and Prof Upinder Bhalla, Dean of NCBS,” said Dr K R Vinothkumar, who heads the facility.
Vinoth himself joined Henderson’s lab as a post-doctoral fellow at MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge, UK, and spent over a decade working with him.
At a meeting on CryoEM organised at NCBS in early 2014, a strong consensus emerged that there should be at least one centre for high-end CryoEM, and up to four, so that Indian structural and cell biologists could collect data without travelling to Europe or the US.
“It required a huge investment by the government, and Venki and Henderson played a big role in convincing India to make this investment,” Vinoth said. The microscope, which arrived in July this year, costs about Rs 40 crore.
The Nobel for Physiology went to Jeffrey C Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W Young “for their discoveries of molecular mechanisms controlling the circadian rhythm”. Their discoveries of the body clock, and how it adapts to the rhythms of day and night, used the fruit fly as a model organism by which to study this daily rhythm.
The discoveries were based on a school of scientific enquiry called neurogenetics developed by Seymour Benzer, the American molecular biologist, at Caltech in November 1971. Among those in his team was a young Obaid Siddiqui, who went on to set up TIFR-NCBS at Bengaluru in the late 1980s, and was its first director from 1991 to 1997.
“India has a strong and vibrant community of fruit fly scientists because of labs established some three or four decades ago. It is considered one of the leaders in the field of research on the fruit fly,” said Dr K VijayRaghavan, secretary, Biotechnology, in the Department of Science & Technology.
VijayRaghavan, who is on deputation from the NCBS, told The Indian Express, “There are several world class researchers who use the fly in labs all over the country and India is recognised as a major centre for this.”
Hall and Rosbach have “close interactions” with Indian scientists studying neurogenetics, and have visited NCBS several times.
VijayRaghavan said the work of the LIGO scientists was supported by the Department of Atomic Energy and the Department of Science and Technology; the work of scientists in fruit fly labs was supported by the Biotechnology department, which is also supporting the new CryoEm facility at NCBS.
“The Nobels points to how government investment has taken India to be amongst the best in science,” VijayRaghavan said.