'Our chips are world-beaters'

Print edition : September 01, 2001

The Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics is currently involved in a project to design the MANAS chip for the Large Hedron Collider at the CERN in Geneva. Bikash Sinha, Director of the SINP, talked to Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay on this and several other projects of the SINP and also the status of the Institute vis-a-vis other similar national and international institutions.

Excerpts from the interview:

The year-long golden jubilee celebrations of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics was attended by scientists both from India and from other countries.

SUSHANTA PATRONOBISH

It was a wonderful opportunity to take stock of what we have been doing and where we stand, not just on a national scale but on an international scale. We had about 12 conferences through the year. During these discussions, through symposia and conferences, the prestige and credibility of the SINP was established not only nationally but internationally. It has also helped us, and me in particular, to assess where we stand. One way to judge this was from the reaction of the delegates at the conference, and the response was very good. It also helped us to know what our weak and strong points are.

How much progress has the SINP made since its founding?

When the Institute was founded 50 years ago under the leadership of Professor Meghnad Saha, India was a pretty poor country, and therefore it had to build everything with its own hands. But it is remarkable what the institute managed to accomplish in the 1950s. Since then SINP has expanded, and is still expanding, in many directions - biological sciences, chemical sciences, physical sciences, nuclear science, condensed matter physics, plasma research, higher energy physics and, of course, theoretical physics. At that time the scope was much smaller. And I think in terms of overall international impact, I can say that the index has gone up substantially.

You said that the jubilee celebrations helped you know what the SINP's strong and weak points are. What are they?

To be honest, I have to admit that not all departments are as efficient and as productive as some departments are. That never is the case in life. Of course, I do not want to go on record as to having said which department I think is weak. But clearly there are some departments which leave much to be desired. It is seen that sometimes they do very old-fashioned research; this is a characteristic thing in India because we feel insecure to go into new territory, but that is not the spirit of research as we understand. But it is our constant endeavour to weed out the weak points and strengthen each and every department.

As for the strong points, I feel it lies in some of the new areas we have ventured into in the last five or six years. By entering into these areas we have taken a great deal of risk, but it all paid off, for they have been tremendously successful. To give you an example, look at the work we are doing in collaboration with the CERN (European Organisation for Nuclear Research) in Geneva. We designed the actual chip required to do experiments at the Large Hedron Collider at the CERN, which is going to become operational in 2006. This will help find out the signals of one particular variety of lepton, which is part of the electron family. After designing the MANAS chip here in the SINP, we went to the Semi Conductor Complex in Chandigarh and designed the whole detector. This is my subject and of course I am biased, and I do not hesitate to admit that, but this whole project has been a great success. The work at the CERN has been on a large all-world-collaboration basis. The other countries involved in the project are Russia, the United Kingdom, Italy, Portugal, the United States, and, particularly, France. What all these countries tried to do was to pitch for these chips. Our chip was much better than theirs. So this is the point that I want to make; that if you have the will, India can do not only as good as they can but even better. And it has all been done in India. We are actually selling, in a sense, the chips we designed to those countries.

What is the Large Hedron Collider?

The Large Hedron Collider comprises two elementary particles - protons in this case, or it could be heavy nucleui like those of helium or gold - going round at a terrific speed in opposite directions. And it is mindboggling energy, something like 3.2 trillion electronvolts. The range of energy is almost that of cosmic events. And its total circumference is about 28 km, going from Switzerland to France and back to Switzerland again.

For which field of science will the Large Hedron Collider be applicable?

Well, technically the part that physicists are looking at is the Higgs bosons. The Higgs bosons is the final link in understanding the bona fide elemental structure in nature, like quarks and gluons. But our interest, like many others', is to look at the remnants of this incredible mini-bang of two nuclei colliding within the Large Hedron Collider and the horrific energy. The theoretical conjecture - and about this there is already some experimental hint - is that elementary particles such as protons, neutrons and mesons, of which the nucleus is made of dissolve into even more elementary particles, quarks and gluons. So essentially the signal for quarks and gluons plasma is what we are looking for. And this is interesting because it connects you with the universe exactly as it was a micro-second after the Big Bang. That is the intellectual excitement, and technologically you can understand that it is one of the most advanced things in the world.

What application does the MANAS chip find in medicine?

The MANAS chip's resolving power is generally much more than what is used for brain scanning. Then there are certain tumours that are so small that they cannot be detected in MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), but can be detected by these chips. Scanning will be much more accurate.

Currently, what are the SINP's thrust areas?

Well, I think for an institution like the SINP, to overfocus on thrust areas would be short-sighted. But I might say that for the 10th Five-Year Plan period, that is, for five years from April 2002 we have taken the unanimous decision that biological sciences will be the thrust area. That surely is in the forefront of research and development and application to medicine in the world at large. At the same time in nuclear science we have developed an array of a different kind of detectors called Meghnad, for the superconducting cyclotron and the present cyclotron and for other laboratories in Delhi and Mumbai. The above, I think, can easily be called our thrust areas. In condensed matter physics, surface physics has come up very well. And people like Professor Milan Sanyal are watching material science essentially on very thin layers like an angstrom. An angstrom is 1/10,00,00,000 cm, and this is the size of an atom. So we are talking about atomic scale material and the most enormous changes that are taking place in material science. In fact, the whole world is likely to open up in respect of new materials.

Around five years ago you said a lot more progress could be made in the SINP if you were given more facilities. Would you say the same thing now?

I said that because at that time the momentum of the Ninth Five-Year Plan was building up. In the Eighth Five-Year Plan, we had very little money, something like Rs.9 crores. But after a lot of fighting, in the Ninth Five-Year plan the amount went up to a whopping Rs.45 crores. It had increased by five times. Now that the Ninth Five-Year Plan is coming to an end, the Institute is in a completely different situation as against where it was five years ago. Up to 1994-95, funds were just not there.

But is Rs.45 crores enough?

I would like to answer the question in two ways. First, you see, no government in any country would give five times more than what you got in the earlier Five-Year Plans. This was some kind of a record. The maximum increment earlier was three times more. But we had to fight really hard, and at the same time we were lucky to get such an increment.

And to answer the question in a different way, now that we have Rs.45 crores we are asking for Rs.120 crores in the Tenth Five-Year Plan. This is the funny thing really. The more you get, the more you get and the less you get, the less you get. It is not necessarily proportional to the scientific potential of the institution. You see, no amount of money is enough, but one has to be realistic in life.

Apart from the MANAS chip, what are the other important projects the SINP is working on?

Apart from the project at the CERN, we are working on the Isotope Separator Project. We have bought this huge machine from Dan Physik in Denmark. We are doing the installation and the commissioning of the machine. This is a big project, because new kinds of isotopes are being produced here, which can be used in several areas such as the production of exotic nuclei, which can be useful for medical purposes. We also have projects in which we are working in collaboration with countries such as Japan, France, the United Kingdom and the U.S., among others.

The SINP was asked to look into the suitability of setting up of a nuclear power station in West Bengal. Could you tell us something about the project?

In the very first foundation day of the golden jubilee year, the then Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, was present as were A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the principal scientific adviser to the Government of India, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly Atish Sinha. Atish pointed out the need for a nuclear power station in West Bengal. And Jyoti Basu in his speech said: "On everything I disagree with the Leader of the Opposition as I must, except on the issue of the nuclear power station." My own views, like others', are that eventually coal will run out. So many accidents take place with coal and coal is also environmentally unfriendly. The Sunderbans is the ideal place for the power station. But unfortunately, there are some rather backward-looking so-called intellectuals in West Bengal, who think that nuclear power and the nuclear bomb is the same. As a result, this project in West Bengal will remain dormant for years to come. I am very very disappointed with this. And I have a feeling that eventually the project will go to Andhra Pradesh. But, as I have said it would have been perfect in the Sunderbans.

But would a huge power station like that in the Sunderbans not affect the ecosystem there?

It is very important to realise that nuclear power stations are the most eco-friendly of all power-generating systems. The accidents that one hears about, such as Chernobyl, are man-made.

Is there any major research project that the SINP is looking forward to working on?

In genomics there is a major programme coming up, in which we will spend quite a large amount of money. All the genes in the human body are mapped. This will have a tremendous implication in terms of the engineering of genes, changing genes and new medication. It is a completely new world. So we have decided to take that up as a specific area which is disease-application oriented. Some of my colleagues here have already started work on this. But I want to push it up on a bigger scale, because genomics is such an important subject and so much money is being pumped into it all over the world that it has to attain a critical size to get any recognition or credibility in the international arena.

What is the kind of progress the SINP is making in its researches in other fields such as the String Theory and protein structure?

Both these subjects are very important and interesting. Research in protein structure is making good progress, but I think we shall have to strengthen the String Theory faculty. Another thing I would like to mention is that we are now trying to develop a new model called the Centre of Advanced Research and Education. This is geared towards making the SINP a deemed university, and once this comes through we can start giving Ph.Ds. The programmes here will be different from those in other universities in that apart from teaching, we shall expose the students to the research being conducted in the Institute.\

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