Theoretical physicist Ashoke Sen has spent almost three decades chasing a high-risk dream. Not all scientists are convinced about String Theory, an elegant model that if proven could explain how nature’s most basic forces work. If the theory is eventually junked, Sen’s work on it could be relegated to a footnote in science research. But if the theory is proven, Sen would have helped us understand the universe better than ever before.
He is among several Indian scientists who in the past decade have led path-breaking research on subjects ranging from exotic particles and esoteric forces to low-cost technology that has helped thousands of poor families.Their work comes at a time when Indian scientists have better access to resources and global opportunities than before.
But challenges remain as India competes with the developed world and China in high-end research.
Satyendra Nath Bose, who explained how subatomic particles like the Higgs boson — potentially discovered last week — dance, may never have found recognition outside India without the help of Albert Einstein.
No journal was willing to publish Bose’s work in 1924. He instead wrote to Einstein, who translated the work into German and had it published in a top journal, bringing Bose recognition and the opportunity to work with other legendary scientists like Marie Curie.
Top Indian scientists no longer need validation from western scientists. “Very often, there is this implicit suggestion that a western mafia is preventing us from getting to the top,” says Thanu Padmanabhan, one of India’s best-known cosmologists. “That’s not true.”
According to a report by Elsevier, the world’s leading research journal publisher, Indian scientists are among world leaders in 159 fields, and the country’s research volume has increased by 14.3% since 2006. Though China is a world leader in more fields and has witnessed higher research growth, the quality of Indian research — measured by the average number of times a research paper is cited by others — is marginally superior.
But India’s investment in research has remained stagnant at 0.9% of its GDP since 2003 despite repeated government promises to double the ratio to 2% of the economy.
The country’s science institutions also need a change in their research culture, says Ashok Gadgil, head of energy and environmental technologies at the University of California, Berkeley. “Young researchers should be able to openly argue and debate hypotheses with seniors without involving egos,” Gadgil says. “You want people to be treated intellectually equal.”
To really encourage bright Indian scientists to stay in India and produce top research though, it may need more than change at just the country’s scientific institutions.
“My work gets recognised globally, but very often it is recognised in India only after it gets honoured in the west. That’s a worrying trend,” Padmanabhan says. “That needs to change.”
‘Government’s support is pleasantly surprising’
Arguing that Albert Einstein’s seminal theory on gravity needs refining — even if only at scales a billionth the width of a hair strand — is similar to questioning Sachin Tendulkar’s batting technique on a particularly quirky pitch. It isn’t easy. Like gravity, it can pull you down. But since 2002, Thanu Padmanabhan — or Paddy as he is known to friends — has repeatedly shown results that substantiate his belief that gravity must be understood differently at subatomic scales, helping nuance Einstein’s theories from almost a century ago. Several other teams of scientists have also independently found his theory to hold. In the process, he has emerged as one of India’s leading cosmologists, is the president of the cosmology commission of the International Astronomical Union, and is the recipient of numerous global awards apart from a Padma Shri in 2007. Padmanabhan’s foray into quantum cosmology started with his PhD thesis in 1979 at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. “But I was unhappy with the attempts being made then to reconcile gravity with quantum physics,” he recalls.
Padmanabhan argued against trying to directly reconcile Einstein’s equations of gravity with quantum mechanics, and pushed for a new approach. It worked. The physicist is optimistic about research in India. “I have been very pleasantly surprised by the support for good research from successive governments, irrespective of parties,” he says. “Things are looking up for research in India.” — CSK
‘Higgs boson still has to be explored’
For this particle physicist who teaches at the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, being at CERN when the recent Higgs boson (HB) announcement was made was a thrilling culmination of over three decades of hard work. “Higgs boson has given a raise to issues that still need to be explored,” she tells HT over the phone from Geneva. Godbole, who’s on her way to Vietnam for a series of lectures, was part of the background researchers worldwide who have been working on the Higgs boson — or as its nicknamed the God Particle — since the 70s. But the journey has just begun because the road ahead entails testing if this “gigantic and complicated” model has been postulated in nature. Why is this discovery so important? “We want to find out if there’s more to physics than is known, a quest to understand how different forces in nature work,” she explains.
Godbole, who’s also hailed as an activist for women in science, has co-authored a book on women scientists in India and is the chief editor of Pramana — Indian Journal of Physics. She has been working in the field of particle physics for over three decades now and has authored over 200 research papers with many being highly cited.
Godbole grew up and studied in Pune when the “only science available to women was home science”. She completed her education IIT Bombay and later State University of New York, and calls her passion for physics a “fortuitous thing that happened to me”.
— Shalini Singh
‘We just need to change our research culture’
He didn’t start the fire. But in Darfur, Sudan’s strife-torn western region, Gadgil has helped douse the fire of violence from the lives of thousands of women — using technology as his tool. The energy and environment researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, developed a low-cost stove that uses less firewood. The Berkeley-Darfur stove, as it is called, has helped over 100,000 displaced people in Darfur reduce the risk of violence through exposure while searching for firewood in the region, which witnessed a bloody civil war from 2003 to 2010. It has also saved their lungs. Gadgil also found an inexpensive method to filter poisonous arsenic from water. UV Waterworks, as the project is called, uses ultraviolet light from a mercury discharge to purify water. The project has been particularly successful in Bangladesh. It was an easy decision for Gadgil to join the sustainable energy and environment sector. “You get to help people and do the work you like,” Gadgil says, laughing. “What could be better?” Gadgil pursued his PhD at the University of California, Berkeley after completing his MS from IIT-Kanpur. His work has been featured in two films, and has won several awards. The scientist is hopeful about India’s research future, but wants to see some change too. “There is no question about the brilliant quality of talent that we have in India,” Gadgil says. “We just need to change our research culture.” — CSK
‘In our field, there are simply no excuses’
With a balding head and thick glasses, Sen is an unlikely poster boy. But in the world of theoretical physics, there are few Indians known or respected more than Sen. From the early 1990s, Sen’s dramatic research has repeatedly redefined how physicists approach one of the most contentious, yet hopeful, theories of modern science: string theory. The theory aims to reconcile two of the most fundamental theories that guide our understanding of the world. It all started for Calcutta-born Sen during his MS at the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur in the late 1970s. “I had been interested in particle physics which deals with the fundamental constituents of matter,” Sen recalls. But it was in the 1980s that Sen said he figured that string theory was his calling. “I came to realise that string theory offers us the best hope of finding a unified theory of all matter and forces,” he says. Sen pursued his PhD at Stonybrook University, and then worked in particle physics at Fermilab near Chicago and the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC) at Stanford University, before returning to work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1998 and received the Padma Shri in 2001. Sen sees no insurmountable challenges for Indian theoretical physics. “In our field, there are no excuses.” — CSK
‘India can lead the world in scientific research’
At the age of three, Ranchi-based Professor Srikanta Pal, unable to speak then, learnt his Bengali and English lessons by pointing out the right answers to his mother. Forty years later, Pal contributed to the working of the world’s third largest telescope, which helps astronomers capture the lunar signal efficiently. For this, the University of Birmingham (BU) has conferred him the title of honorary research fellow for 2012-2014 for his contribution to radio astronomy. This is Pal’s second significant achievement after the first one in 2009 where he developed a device that enabled the Green Band Telescope — world's largest radio telescope in Green Bank, USA — to enhance its observation range. Pal, who did his masters in microwave engineering from Jadavpur University, went on to do a DPhil from Oxford University and came back to join IIT Delhi and IIT Roorkee. “I have been inspired by the likes of SN Bose, JC Bose and CV Raman,” he says. Pal believes that there should be an effective system where quality and not quantity of research should be judged by an independent authority. “India can lead the world in scientific research with adequate government support. Global warming is the problem of the future. We need to focus on green technologies.” With his upcoming stint at BU, fate sure pointed Pal in the right direction. — Shalini Singh