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At ‘Alice’ in science wonderland,the ‘muchness’ of India

From big research to the supply of tiniest parts,India’s everywhere at CERN.

Written by Sreenivas Janyala | Geneva |
October 3, 2011 3:01:05 am

As senior scientist J Schukraft gives visitors a tour of the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (known by its French acronym CERN),its gigantic labs and its complex experiments,the one word that keeps popping up is ‘India’. That is because whether it is colliding particles in the 27-kilometre-long Large Hadron Collider (as part of Alice Experiment) or discovering neutrons that travel faster than the speed of light,Indian scientists are at the forefront of research happening inside those massive steel and concrete structures at CERN,nestled 40 minutes from Geneva.

“Apart from so many Indians working with us at important positions,I think whenever we need a particular kind of hardware that either does not exist or is difficult to find,we turn to India,and an obscure factory in Indore or a firm in Chandigarh delivers it,” Schukraft says.

At present 109 Indian scientists are associated with CERN in one way or the other. Dr Tapan Naik,who leads the team of Indian scientists involved in Alice (short for ‘A Large Ion Collider Experiment’),says the connection between CERN and India is not just about numbers.

“At every stage,from constructing labs to every experiment,either Indian scientists or Indian firms are involved. In the Alice experiment,Indian scientists contributed by creating the photon multiplicity detector. It is purely an Indian effort,from conception to commissioning. A firm in Chandigarh gave us the electronics,while electronic chips,silicon detectors and a particular kind of graphite that is able to protect delicate hardware came from Bangalore,’’ Naik,who is also a member for the CERN Management Board,said.

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Back home,Naik heads the physics department at Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC),Kolkata. “I worked at CERN from 1994 to ‘97,now I come once a month. A huge amount of data collected in Alice is also analysed in Kolkata,” he says.

Dr Archana Sharma is one of the brightest stars at CERN. Everything that happens in the Alice experiment tunnel 100 metres below the ground — where attempts are on to re-create the Big Bang,which is believed to have led to creation of the universe — is at her fingertips.

“We are trying to understand what happened 13.7 billion years ago,unlock the mysteries of the universe,” she said,a gleam in her eyes. “In the tunnel,particles collide 40 million times per second and we record the data. The volume of data collected is so huge that CERN has only 20 per cent capacity to analyse it,the rest is distributed across the world,much of it goes to Kolkata. You will be surprised at the number of Indian universities and institutions that are involved with CERN,” Dr Sharma said.

Excited about last fortnight’s discovery of certain neutrinos travelling faster than the speed of light during an experiment,Dr Sharma said that if a second experiment proved the same,“it is going to be a revolutionary discovery”. “I am keeping my fingers crossed.”

Prof Raghav Varma,head of physics department,IIT,Mumbai,has been working at Alice for the past five years. “Scientists from several countries are here but I think the contributions made by Indians stand out at CERN. At least 70 Indians are involved with Alice in one or the other,” he said.

To capture 40 million digital photos per second of colliding particles in the tunnel and to send the data of each collision separately,millions of cables are required. It was an obscure factory at Indore took up the challenge and delivered miles and miles of cables thinner than a strand of hair.

Dr Anju Bhasin,department of physics,University of Jammu,who is here since several months,said that in her interaction with students,she is now able to make physics more exciting based on her experience at CERN.

“Physics is usually dismissed as dull and drab. But when I share my experience,and what we are doing at CERN,with my students,they perk up. The subject has become a lot more interesting now and I receive emails from scores of physics students seeking advice on topics they want to research or pursue,’’ Dr Bhasin said.

Apart from these institutes,the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research; the physics departments of Aligarh Muslim University,Bhubaneshwar Institute of Physics,Panjab University,University of Guwahati and Rajasthan University; and the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics,Kolkata,are involved with CERN work.

President Pratibha Patil,who visited CERN as part of her official tour of the Swiss Confederation,met and interacted with the Indian scientists yesterday. She was taken 100 metres underground to get a first-hand look at the tunnel where the collider is located.

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