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Dr Rajagopala Chidambaram, one of Indias distinguished experimental physicists having immense contribution in developing the country as a formidable nuclear power, inspired generations of scientists in making outstanding contributions to many aspects of basic science and nuclear 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 application in general life

RC: Accelerator is a place where energy of a charged particle is increased by applying an electric field. You accelerate electrons and protons to very high energy and use Einstein’s equation E=mc2 the other way. This way, if high energy particles are collided the energy disappears to produce new particles. 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. Accelerator can be used to produce X rays that can be used just like gamma rays from nuclear for killing cancer cells. 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. Then, Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT) in Indore is working on producing synchrotron radiation by accelerating electrons instead of protons in a circular fashion. In Indus2 at RRCAT, we have been accelerating electrons up to 2,500 million electron volts (MeV) to emit X-rays that can be used in a variety of studies including molecular biology and materials which has got a large number of applications. At Dhruva reactor in Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Mumbai, we are trying to create a source for spallation neutrons which will be further used in various multi-disciplinary research studies. Here we have a collaboration with Pharma Lab in Chicago, US. While Accelerators produced in RRCAT will be used in the US lab, technologies learnt from them will be used here to create spallation neutron source for future. Even, in Paris Accelerators are used to analyse components of the paints to detect fake paintings of the greats.

SB: Given the eternal debate on 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. There is no point in having applied research without basic research. So, in India we need both.

SB: Are we lacking both?

RC:No, we are going forward rapidly. Basic research is also a cultural necessity in any civilised country. 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. We have to participate in mega science projects as well. There are many fundamental questions which are yet to be answered, like what is the origin of universe, what is dark matter and many others. India must participate in finding them. Today, no country alone can make a big technology project. For example, the highly expensive ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) project in Cadarache(France). However, India is participating and a member there. The big cryostat, in which the Tokamak will be located, is being built in our Institute of Plasma Research (IPR) in Gandhinagar, Gujarat.

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 100 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: Indias bond with particle physics was further strengthened by the  discovery of Higgs Boson as it belongs to the classof elusive subatomic particles called Boson,which was named after Indian physicist the great Satyendra Nath Bose. However, 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 Precision Magnet Positioning System (PMPS) jacks etc. Coincidentally, today (9 January) is also 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, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR)wastheleader of group of scientists which contributed significantly in building the CMS detector, which first found the signature of the elusive ‘God Particle’. Similarly, Kolkata’s Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC) has serious contribution towards building another important device called Alice detector. Apart from that we are also involved in interpreting all the data generated in the detectors during experiments. This is possible because we have a very high speed ‘knowledge network’ which is connected with the CERN grid.

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 Indias 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 Indias 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 nabhikiyashastra (nuclear weapons). Nabhikiya urja (nuclear energy) is ok but not nabhikiya shastra. ‘Net pozhaluysta’ (‘no please’ in Russian).

SB: But, looking through a humanist eye, do you think mans 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 for today

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.

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