Friday, April 20, 2012

TIFR: Dishing out pure sciences

Midway up the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) numbered C-6, a 125-tonne radiowave dish receiver appears overhead and 29 other telescopes scanning the sky come into sight. Suresh Sabhapathy, coordinator of the Servo control system that points the dishes towards various celestial bodies, is our guide to the site in Khodad, Maharashtra. Up here, there is deafening silence across the arc of the dishes because “we listen, we only listen, we don’t speak,” says Sabhapathy.

It is not merely the view that is breathtaking, but the realization of what it takes to keep hold of that marginal edge Indian science has achieved here: low-cost, indigenous innovation that must keep pushing new frontiers. This edge is what the team of 11 men here has its eye on. For the first time since it was set up at a cost of Rs. 40 crore (Rs. 400 million) in the early 1990s, the GMRT is receiving a full-scale upgrade this year that will cost pretty much the same. The upgrade will “deal with technological obsolescence and continue keeping the competitive edge for Indian science,” says Yashwant Gupta, dean, GMRT.

The 30 dishes operate individually as telescopes and collectively, they make the GMRT the largest radio telescope in the 150-1,500 Mhz frequency in the world. In this facility of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) --- which 2011 Nobel Prize winner Brian Schmidt called “the best in the world” (Asian Scientist magazine, January) ---pure research stretches its limited resources. S. Sureshkumar, senior design engineer for the GMRT’s fibre optic communication systems, says: “Even a satellite only explores the orbit. The opportunity to design instruments capable of mapping galaxies beyond is what challenges us to create.”

The GMRT, one of TIFR’s — and India’s — largest projects to date, represents the fundamentals of an institute dedicated to the sheer joy of scientific play. The scale and localization of its upgrade, with everything being made indigenously, stands for how the TIFR has shaped, and is currently renegotiating, pure sciences in India, even as it seeks The Next Big Thing.

Defining pure
Set up in Colaba, Mumbai, in June 1945 under the guidance of the respected scientist and educationist Homi Bhabha, the TIFR remains one of India’s few bastions of pure sciences. Here, commercial constraints do not cloud projects. Bids for apparatus, even entire labs, receive funding and do not need to be dedicated to a single outcome.

Inter-departmental collaboration is encouraged, to the extent that Bhabha’s famous “Wednesday lectures”—where the faculty attends a common lecture session of other researchers’ ongoing works—continue even today. Almost no hypothesis is too wild a goose to chase.

“In play is the frontier of all scientific discovery,” Prof. Mustansir Barma, Director, TIFR, says. Its researchers must achieve a sabbatical at any other research organization once every five years in order to stay competitive. This is the only conditionality imposed.

Prof C. N. R. Rao, national research professor, honorary president and Llinus Pauling research professor, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research, Bangalore, says: “TIFR is a well-endowed institution where scientists need not worry much about funding and support for their ideas and projects. It is unique in this regard. TIFR should be one of the world’s best institutes for research.”

The breadth of perspective it achieves from its collaborative functioning is unique. It is the difference between a single radiowave satellite, and all 30 of them, mapping the same celestial body. With it comes the realization that a change in definitions, silos, approaches, is as necessary as maintaining the purity of the bloodline.

“Pure sciences in the 1940s and 1950s were not what they are today. While we are careful not to allow applications of science to muddy the water, in that we are dedicated to pure sciences, there is the danger of the other—rejecting something because it may be applied,” Prof. Barma says.

TIFR’s reputation has been boosted by results — the closest temperature to absolute zero was achieved in the basement here, India’s first computers were built here, as were the first micro waves—both (computers and micro waves) were later hived off to commercial corporations. More importantly, “because of these results, funding and support is easier for us than for most,” Prof. Barma says. As Prof. Gupta of the GMRT explains, “We are trusted.”

New boundaries
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, while inaugurating the 99th Indian Science Congress in January, and outlining the 12th Five Year Plan objectives, said India’s new goals depend upon achieving improved scientific infrastructure and large key projects such as the India-based Neutrino Observatory. The 12th Plan proposes to increase spending on science from 1% of the gross domestic product to 2%.

At the TIFR, anticipation is high. In previous decades, scientists say, there were few funds for them to even attend international conferences or experiment, among other limitations. With the increased spending, as Prof G. Ravindrakumar, a scientist in the TIFR’s department of atomic and nuclear energy, puts it, “There are no more excuses for not achieving spectacular results in science.” This is also what Prof. Rao means when he qualifies his praise of TIFR, “Yet it has to strive hard to be on top of scientific institutions in the world.”

Results vs play
“We astrophysicists have a saying: All the knowledge uncovered by radio astrophysicists in the world is still not sufficient to light a single electric bulb,” says Divya Oberoi, an astrophysicist who has just returned from the Haystack Observatory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US, to work on the GMRT upgrade. In a world of applied science with commercial stakes, where technological advances are as rapid as obsolescence, the fundamental is painstaking. “You see something you did has had an impact many years later,” Prof. Barma says.

Much of TIFR’s willingness to take the risk of wandering through science in this painstaking fashion stems from Bhabha’s theory that the best results in science come from the library and the canteen. Prof. Barma explains: “A biologist and a laser physicist were having tea. The physicist told his friend about his finding that when you shoot lasers at small metal particles, you get a huge burst of X-rays which are tunable. But he couldn’t prepare particles of exactly the same size. The biologist said: ‘But we have bacteria and they are all the same size.’ And they began to work together.”

Only in TIFR, scientists say, is such random interplay encouraged. The biologist was Krishanu Ray and the physicists, M. Krishnamurthy and Prof. G. Ravindrakumar, at TIFR’s Ultrashort Pulse High Intensity Laser Laboratory (UPHILL). When using E. coli bacteria, they found the output was 60 times the expected in photon terms. The scientists have applied for a patent and are chasing the possibilities of this opening a whole new field of study. “I cannot imagine any laser plasma physicist working with a biologist anywhere else,” Krishnamurthy says. Ray is a physicist-turned-biologist and Krishnamurthy a chemist-turned-physicist. They say at TIFR that you don’t become a physicist just because you happened to study physics.

Such perspective is drawing young Indian thinkers in science back home. Mandar Deshmukh, 37, returned from his studies at Cornell and Harvard Universities in 2006 to set up the first clean room in the nanotechnology lab. He heads the graphene group — experiments with this material, known as the “rock star” of materials science, won two scientists, Russo-British Konstantin Novoselov and Dutch Andre Geim, the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics.

Deshmukh laughs off the hype. “People knew about graphene in theory, but it is only now that they are able to isolate the base atom, not just for graphite but for pretty much the whole class of materials. Again, the priorities of our country were different,” he says. In 2011, the graphene group at TIFR became the first group to quantify the unusual ability of graphene to contract as it is heated.

“We don’t have the number of scientists the US has and whatever we do will never really have that scale of impact,” Prof. Barma says. “It’s only in the last 10 years that the funding has started picking up. Many things that were unimaginable 10 years ago are possible today. It would be nice if we had a R&D culture nationally. Having said that, it will take some time.” Nobody knows what doors to the universe the GMRT upgrade will open. As dean Gupta puts it, “Serendipity is an important part of all astronomy.” In the meanwhile, in repeatedly asking the fundamental question rests all scientific progress.

Source: Mint, April 20, 2012

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