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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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.