Stalled Science

Forget the God Particle, India's quest for a particle accelerator seems stalled

Science in India is suffering from a lack of funding, but perhaps more crucially, from a lack of leadership.

When science dominates global news, particle accelerators – machines that speed up subatomic particles – are quite often behind the headlines. The discovery of the Higgs boson prompted a spate of articles all over the world. It was achieved using the world’s largest particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider, a 27-km circular underground tunnel at the European particle-physics laboratory CERN.

Now, a particle accelerator is in the news in India, but there has been no big discovery. According to the Deccan Herald, the venerable Indian Institute of Science (IISc) has just scrapped plans to build what would have been India’s biggest particle accelerator. Although IISc has dismissed the report, saying that plans remain in place, there is no confirmation yet that they can afford to pay the construction cost of Rs 2,000 crore without help from the central government.

The idea of building a type of particle accelerator called the synchrotron was announced in 2011 by IISc's associate director N Balakrishnan. “A synchrotron of the kind we are looking at will be an engineering marvel. That is why it will take 12 years to build, because we don’t actually have the people yet in the country to build something like that,” he told LiveMint.

The Large Hadron Collider smashed sub-atomic particles at great speeds in the hope of discovering the fundamental secrets of the universe. The construction of the LHC cost $9 billion, and India is unlikely to get anything similar. Instead, according to Anirban Kundu, a particle physicist at the University of Calcutta, “Indian particle physicists collaborate with those at CERN and other such facilities to do their work”.

However, it is the smaller particle accelerator that Indian scientists desperately need. These are commonly used to work on real-world problems. For instance, synchrotrons produce exceptionally bright X-rays, which allow the study of, say, the arrangement of atoms in proteins in the hope of making new drugs. Smaller particle accelerators that fire electrons can have everyday applications, such as sealing a packet of chips.

In 2011, the mood among Indian physicists was positive. M Vijayan, Homi Bhabha professor at IISc’s molecular biophysics unit and past president of the Indian National Academy of Sciences said that “the availability of money was no longer a problem in Indian science”.

But by the end of 2013, nothing had happened. That is when CNR Rao, one of India’s top scientists and the chairman of the scientific advisory council to the prime minister, sent a letter to the planning commission requesting them to ensure India gets a synchrotron that would befit its scientific ambitions. Although the plans to provide funds for a synchrotron have been considered since the 11th plan, spanning 2007 to 2012, no money has been marked out in even the 12th plan.

The synchrotron was supposed to be built over 100 acres of land within a 10,000-acre science facility in the Chitradurga district in Karnataka, and to be shared by IISc, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Defence Research and Development Organisation, and other top scientific bodies. But protests by local communities, who consider the grazing land vital for animal-rearing, has raised other issues which the leadership hasn't been able to resolve. There are doubts about the whole project now.

In dismissing the report that the synchrotron has been scuttled, DD Sarma, a chemist at IISc, told The Hindu, “The expert committee is still active, and a meeting was convened by the Planning Commission just a few months ago to chalk out what is needed to acquire a very advanced research synchrotron.”

Leadership Vacuum
It seems money and a suitable location are not the only problems. In 2012, Gautam Desiraju, an accomplished chemist at IISc, wrote in the journal Nature that Indian science needed not money, but good leadership. He said that although India’s investment in scientific research – less than 1% of the GDP, when other global powers spend more than double that – is not great, throwing more money at the problem won’t help. The country needed to make bold moves if it wanted to compete globally.

IISc was given the go-ahead to submit a feasibility report in 2010, yet after four years there has been little progress. The handling of the IISc synchrotron project suggests that the leadership Desiraju pointed to is still lacking.

“What is surprising is that Brazil is now building its second synchrotron and even a small country like Taiwan has good synchrotron facilities,” said Rao in his 2013 letter. Currently, India has three particle accelerators and one of those facilities houses a synchrotron. From the number of particle accelerators, when compared with countries around the world (see map), it may seem that India is doing well.

But that ignores the fact that most of these facilities are more than two decades old. The synchrotron in Indore, for instance, was built in 1999 and has a moderate power output. It is not considered internationally competitive. To bolster Indian science, a modern, high power synchrotron is needed. But it seems unlikely that it will get one soon.


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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.


This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.