Indore: Dr R Chidambaram, one of India’s distinguished experimental physicists having immense contribution in developing the country’s formidable nuclear power, inspired generations of scientists in making outstanding contributions to basic science and technology. On the sidelines of 8th Indian Particle Accelerator Conference (InPAC) held in Indore from January 9 to 12, Sourav Banerjee catches up with the principal scientific adviser (PSA) to Government of India in an attempt to unravel some intriguing questions
SB: For us laymen, will you please explain what is ‘Accelerator’ and how this huge endeavour would benefit common man? Say, in terms of material outcome or applications in general life
RC: Accelerator is a place where energy of a charged particle is increased by applying an electric field. And the biggest experiment in this regard is discovery of the ‘missing’ Higgs Boson in the Accelerator called Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Geneva, where two protons (Hadrons) were made to collide in a tunnel of 26-km circumference by accelerating them to several tera electron volts. Similarly, experiments in nuclear physics with lower energy as well help develop applications for society that can be widely used in semiconductor industry, healthcare and other industries. Tata Memorial Centre and a private hospital in Chennai is working on having 230 million volt accelerated protons to produce gamma rays that can be used more effectively to kill cancer cells.
SB: Given the eternal debate of basic versus applied sciences, where do you think India as an ‘emerging global power’ should focus on?
RC: If you want to be a global manufacturing power you have to have a technological superstructure consisting of applied research, R&D led innovation, and technology development backed by high quality manufacturing skills. However, basic research lays foundation for it. So, in India we need both.
SB: Are we lacking both?
RC: No, we are going forward rapidly. Swami Vivekananda said that “Knowledge should be acquired for its own sake,” but knowledge must have utility as well. So, we need basic research and it should be done in all universities. I rather call it “directed basic research” which is basically not directed by somebody but directed by India’s basic needs in the long term; societal, strategic and industry need in the long term. And of course we need to develop technology as well and then back it up by good manufactured products.
SB: Post discovery of ‘sensational’ ‘God Particle’, is there any further breakthrough in unravelling the formation mystery of the universe?
RC: Now, they are thinking of even bigger particle. For Higgs Boson the LHC was of 26 km and now, they are trying to do the experiment in 300 km circumference because higher energy is needed for that.
SB: Are we playing any role in this new CERN endeavour?
RC: Not yet, because it is still in the conceptual stage and yet to be started. Once it starts we may be playing some role in it.
SB: As I see, our association with CERN is more of technical nature than theoretical one, like acting as a grid computing hub to analyse data, supplying PMPS jacks etc. Coincidentally, today (9 January) is the 96th birth anniversary of another great India-born Nobel Laureate scientist Har Gobind Khorana. I was wondering what was deterring the nation of 120 crore people from producing more and more SN Bose, CV Raman, Khorana or Homi Bhabha?
RC: Remember, all these greats did basic research for which we are also proud today. However, India has contributed to the CERN project in a substantial way, as all the corrector magnets used in the experiment were supplied by Indian companies under the direction of RRCAT. In that $4 billion machine, our equipment was of $40 million. It is a kind of complement to the capabilities of our engineering industry. Notably, TIFR was the leader of group of scientists which contributed significantly in building the CMS detector, which first found the signature of the elusive ‘God Particle’.
SB: Despite its valuable contribution for over half a century, India could only become an associate member of CERN in January last year, a year after Pakistan attained the feat. Now, is there any prospect of India’s membership in the Geneva-based premier nuclear research organisation?
RC: We won’t get membership because that’s only for European countries.
SB: But Israel, a non-European country, was included in CERN in 2014.
RC: I don’t know. You have done more investigation than us.
SB: You played an integral role in India’s nuclear weapons programme; successfully coordinated the Smiling Buddha (Pokhran-I in 1975) and Operation Shakti (Pokhran-II in 1998)…
RC: No rajnitik (political) question, no discussion on nabhikiya shastra (nuclear weapons). Nabhikiya urja (nuclear energy) is ok but not nabhikiya shastra.
SB: But, looking through a humanist eye, do you think man’s quest for apocalyptic nuclear weapons does worth so much of human energy and public money?
RC: You want a one hour lecture on that?
SB: No, your few words would be enough…
RC: See, national development and nation security are the two sides of the same coin. Development without security is vulnerable and security without development is meaningless. The greatest advantage of the recognised strength is that you don’t have to use it. That is the principle of nuclear techniques.
SB: But, (nuclear weapons) despite Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
RC: Despite so many accidents in plants, despite so many criminal activities going on…What has it got to do? If you begin to combine this and that and that, who can answer your question? You have to answer it yourself. If you have a doubt, may be I can find a quote from Swami Vivekananda for you: “The old theology is that you are an atheist if you don’t believe in god and today, the new theology is you are an atheist if you don’t believe in self.” Now, you put it in your pipe and as an American says, smoke it.