A saga of success

Print edition : September 01, 2001
In half a century of its existence, the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics makes great strides in research not only in nuclear physics but in other areas of science.

FIFTY-ONE years after its inception, the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP) at Bidhannagar in Kolkata today stands as a premier research institute that is recognised nationally and internationally for its contribution to science. When it was established in 1950, the SINP was the first of its kind in India. Its area of work has now extended beyond nuclear physics to other physical sciences and to biological sciences.

At the convention organised by the Safdar Hashmi Memorial Trust in Delhi against saffronisation of education.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

When the German scientist Otto Hahn, together with two other scientists, discovered nuclear fission in 1938, Meghnad Saha, who was then Palit Professor of Physics at Calcutta University, realised the importance of the discovery and of the need to study nuclear physics in India. He persuaded the university authorities to include nuclear physics in the curriculum and in the programmes of the Palit Research Laboratory attached to the university. It was from this laboratory that the SINP originated.

In the early 1940s, at the initiative of Jawaharlal Nehru, who was Chairman of the National Planning Commission set up by the Indian National Congress, Calcutta University was granted Rs.60,000 to construct a building on the premises of the Rajabazaar Science College, to house a cyclotron. The university raised another Rs.60,000. By 1942, the building was completed. The university contributed over Rs.1.6 lakhs more for the project. In 1946, the Jawaharlal Nehru government extended a capital grant of Rs.70,000 to the project and a recurring grant of Rs.40,000 for two years. The project also received huge donations. However, it was realised that the building was not large enough to house a cyclotron. The university provided a plot of land adjacent to the old building. In 1950, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) contributed Rs.1.2 lakhs for the completion of the building with all facilities. Thus, the Institute of Nuclear Physics, as the SINP was originally named, came into existence.

On January 11, 1950, the Institute was formally inaugurated by Nobel laureate Irene Joliot-Curie in the presence of, among others, scientists J.D. Bernal and Sir Robert Robinson. West Bengal Governor Dr. K.N. Katju presided over the function. On May 12, 1951, Calcutta University's Senate adopted the Constitution of the Institute, which was approved by the Government of India. It was an autonomous organisation run by a Governing Council comprising representatives of the Union and State governments and Calcutta University. The governing body was headed by the Vice-Chancellor of the university. Following the death of Meghnad Saha in 1956, it was decided that the Institute be named after him. From August 1958, it came to be known as the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics.

Dearth of funds was a major problem the SINP faced in its early days. Other than the recurring annual grant of Rs.36,000 from Calcutta University, it was private donations and ad hoc grants provided by various Central government agencies for research projects that enabled the Institute to carry on with its work. The funds problem was redressed to some extent in 1955 when, after long-drawn-out negotiations between Meghnad Saha and H.J. Bhaba, Secretary in the Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the Government of India decided to give the Institute block grants for periods of five years. For the fist five-year period (1955-60), Rs.63 lakhs was sanctioned. The grant was increased to Rs.125 lakhs for the next period. It was then decided to make the period of grant to coincide with the Five-Year Plans of the government. For the Ninth Plan period, the Institute received Rs.45 crores.

With a regular flow of funds ensured, the Institute's constitution was modified on January 1, 1972. Under a tripartite agreement, the DAE became the principal financier. The Institute was delinked from Calcutta University and the Chairman of the DAE was made the head of the Governing Council.

Lack of adequate space was another major problem faced by the Institute initially. This problem was solved when the Government of West Bengal gifted 620 kathas (one katha is 720 sq feet) of land next to the DAE's Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre (VECC) in the green surroundings of Bidhannagar. The Institute shifted its base to Bidhannagar in the early 1980s. The new campus included a guest house, a hostel and staff quarters. The biophysics laboratory, situated in northern Kolkata, has not been shifted to Bidhannagar. Meghnad Saha started the biophysics division with the hope that it would become the nucleus of an institute of medical physics.

THE SINP was set up for the sole purpose of conducting researches in nuclear physics. However, it has diversified so much that other areas of science are given as much importance as nuclear physics. These areas include the String Theory, protein structure, clover detector, the Muon Arm project, high temperature superconductivity, high-intensity magnetic field and genomics. The Institute has made important contributions in tokamak and quark gluon plasma research, surface physics, astrophysics, biology and cosmology. Bikash Sinha, Director of the SINP, said: "We have decided to give special importance to biological sciences." A survey conducted by the National Information System for Science and Technology (NISSAT) a few years ago said that in terms of publications the Institute ranked among the top five of its kind in the world.

The Institute is also working in collaboration with the VECC to set up India's first medical cyclotron in Kolkata. The project is estimated to cost around Rs. 52 crores. The project will be undertaken by West Bengal Radio Pharmaceutical Ltd, a joint venture formed by, among others, the DAE and the Department of Science and Technology and Non-conventional Energy Sources of the Government of West Bengal. Ion Beam Applications (IBA) of Belgium, which controls 70 per cent of the global market for cyclotrons, will supply the machine, Cyclotron-30, which will be installed and operated by the SINP. Bikash Sinha, who is also the Director of the VECC, will be the non-executive chairman of West Bengal Radio Pharmaceutical Ltd. The DAE, which has already invested Rs.24 crores in the project, will be a major shareholder.

The MANAS chip on a testing board. The chip, being designed by the SINP, has been chosen for the European Organisation for Nuclear Research project in Geneva - THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

The West Bengal government has allotted two acres of land in Dumdum, Kolkata, for the project. The West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation (WBIDC) has invested Rs.60 lakhs in it. Bikash Sinha said: "I met Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee and Nirupam Sen, Minister for Commerce and Industry and Development and Planning, and requested them for more funds for the project and State government representation on the board of West Bengal Radio Pharmaceutical Ltd. Their response was positive." It took more than 10 years for this project to take off. "This was mainly because we could not get any financiers who were willing to take the risk of entering into this venture," said Sinha.

Cyclotron-30 is an advanced machine that can produce an intense beam of 30 MeV protons (the nucleus of the hydrogen bomb). This beam bombards various targets and triggers nuclear reactions that produce radioactive isotopes. Some of these isotopes are used in the treatment of serious ailments. For instance, an isotope of palladium offers the best cure for prostrate cancer if the disease is detected early enough; thallous chloride, an isotope of thallium, is useful in treating heart diseases. These isotopes are imported and are thus expensive. "Once we set up Cyclotron-30 in Kolkata, advanced diagnosis will be far more accessible to the masses," said Bikash Sinha.

The SINP is currently involved in a major project to design the MANAS chip for the Large Hedron Collider at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva. The chip will be used by all countries involved in the CERN project, including Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, Italy, Portugal, France and Switzerland. "It was a real feather in our cap, something we are all extremely proud of, that our design surpassed all the others. The SINP was already on the international map, but with this our prestige has increased even more," said Bikash Sinha.

According to him, the Institute is also participating in projects in Japan, France and the U.S. In Japan, it is collaborating with RIKEN in a radioactive ion beam project. The research for this project is done at the SINP and the development work at the VECC. "Together with RIKEN, we are designing what is called Radioactive Frequency Quadruple, an extremely difficult work," said Bikash Sinha.

The Institute will be designing high-energy particle detectors, which will be shipped to the U.S.

The SINP recently set up a 22 kV high current isotope separator and ion implanter to prepare isotopes of almost all elements. The machine, obtained from Danfysik A/S of Denmark, is housed in a separate building. It can produce enriched isotopes, which are important not only in nuclear and condensed matter research but in organ-specific diagnostic applications in medical science. These isotopes are expensive to import; often they are not available internationally because of embargoes. Ion implantation is an effective method of modifying the mechanical, electrical, optical, magnetic and superconducting properties of various metals, which are essential in some industries.

Nuclear physics remains the SINP's forte. "A lot of the world has gone on to higher energy, cosmology, astronomy and particle physics. In fact, a lot of nuclear physics laboratories in the world have been closed down. Since we are very strong in nuclear physics, and the number of competitors is coming down, we can do extremely well in the field," Bikash Sinha said.

The SINP's attitude to research and the advancement of science and to the imparting of knowledge is best summarised in the words of Meghnad Saha: "The present Institute is dedicated to fundamental researches in nuclear physics, nuclear chemistry and biophysics. To use popular language, it is dedicated to atomic energy research. The object of the university is not production, least of all production of poison gases or bombs of any kind. The object is advancement of knowledge, and it is to this objective that the present Institute is dedicated, as far as atomic energy is concerned."

The SINP has come a long way since Saha wrote these words. But as Bikash Sinha put it, the "the spirit of research is still as much alive today at the SINP, as it was 50 years ago."

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