Pivotal role for city in dead-star machine

Calcutta, Jan. 5: Scientists in Calcutta are in the vanguard of an Indian effort to help Europe build a new machine designed to simulate the interiors of enormously dense dead stars and explore the glue that seems to bond the universe.

Bangalore-based astronomers plan to build high in the mountains of Ladakh a solar telescope to study the Sun by day and stars by night. And physicists in Chennai, Mumbai and elsewhere are hoping to build a giant underground cavern near Madurai where they will install instruments to investigate the antics of subatomic particles called neutrinos.

Amid scientific enthusiasm, the Indian government has pledged funds for several mega-science projects, but scientists caution that a dearth of human resources will pose severe challenges to efforts to turn those ideas into reality.

"Mega-science projects are driven by a passion for fundamental science, but they allow us to master frontline technologies," said Bikash Sinha, Homi Bhabha professor at Calcutta's Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre, speaking at a plenary session on mega-science at the 100th Indian Science Congress today.

The VECC is leading a group of institutions in India that will provide key components that will go into building the Facility for Anti-Proton and Ion Research (FAIR), Europe's newest particle accelerator, in Darmstadt, Germany, that will mimic the insides of dead stars called neutron stars.

India is the third largest contributor to FAIR, having pledged 40 million euros or 3 per cent of the 1.2 billion euros the project will cost, after Germany's 75 per cent and Russia's 18 per cent. The machine will also be used to study mechanisms that glue fundamental particles called quarks together to form subatomic particles like the protons.

"India is building equipment to be used at the heart of the FAIR accelerator," said Horst Stoecker, a German theoretical physicist and scientific director of the GSI Helmholtz Centre for Heavy Ion Research in Darmstadt, the site for FAIR. The first experiments at FAIR are expected to begin in about three years.

Sections of private or public Indian industries ' the Electronics Corporation of India and Larsen and Toubro, among others ' will provide magnets and power converters worth Rs 260 crore as components for FAIR. "Indian industry has already begun manufacturing components," said Subhasis Chattopadhyay, programme director at the Indo-FAIR co-ordination centre at the VECC.

Solar physicist Siraj Hasan from the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, Bangalore, speaking at the plenary, outlined plans for a Rs 300-crore solar telescope to be built either near Pangong Lake or a site named Hanle, both in Ladakh.

"We hope to have our first observations in 2017," Hasan said. But Hasan is among scientists worried that not enough young and bright people are opting for research careers that will take them into such mega-science projects.

"We'll need a 10-fold increase in the number of faculty and students," he said.

Faculty and students from India have for decades been part of global mega-science projects ' from underground experiments in the Kolar Gold Fields during the 1960s and 1970s to the search for the Higgs boson in recent years.

But many believe much stronger efforts will be needed to lure promising non-resident Indian scientists back home and to draw youngsters towards research careers to ensure that India can pursue its own mega-science projects.

"We need to get faculty and students from our universities to join mega-science projects," said G. Rajasekaran, a senior physicist at the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, and a member of the nationwide collaboration to build an Indian Neutrino Observatory near Madurai. "Fourth-year (engineering) students should be allowed to work on mega-science projects," Rajasekaran said.

Neutrinos are subatomic particles that some physicists believe may hold the key to their understanding of long-standing questions in fundamental physics. "The INO should excite young people," Rajasekaran said. "But I don't see that yet."

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