Research in particle physics took Manjit Kaur from PU to CERN
Manjit Kaur, 65, from Panjab University’s (PU) physics department, was one of the scientists who has been working on CERN’s CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment, one of two large general-purpose particle physics detectors built on the LHC.Updated: Jun 07, 2019 17:09 IST
Manjit Kaur, associated scientist at CERN, and team leader of PU group
News of the Higgs Boson, also referred to as the ‘God particle’ created waves when discovered in 2012 by teams working at the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) based at the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN), near Geneva in Switzerland.
The LHC, a machine which weighs 38,000 tonnes running 27km below the ground in a tunnel allows scientists to reproduce conditions existing within a billionth of a second after the Big Bang by colliding beams of highenergy protons or ions at speeds closest to the speed of light. Interestingly enough, Manjit Kaur, 65, from Panjab University’s (PU) physics department, was one of the scientists who has been working on CERN’s CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiment, one of two large general-purpose particle physics detectors built on the LHC. Now principal investigator of the Indian government’s department of science and technology (DST)-CMS research project at PU; Kaur is also associated scientist at CERN in CMS experiment and team leader of the PU group.
Kaur says the discovery of the Higgs Boson is path-breaking because it will answer a lot of questions in particle physics, a branch of physics that studies the nature of particles that constitute matter and radiation. “We still have to find out if there was equal amount of matter or anti-matter when the universe started and possibility of an alternative universe,” she adds. Recounting her journey to CERN from Chandigarh, she says, “In 1988 a team from CERN came to India looking for science students for the Higgs Boson experiment. I recommended two students. Later, while presenting a paper at a conference in Germany a professor from a German university, also working at CERN, told me about the work in the world lab where people from different countries will work together on the experiment. “I received an official invitation to work at CERN in 1989 and since 1999, I have been member of CERN-India CMS collaboration,” she says. Kaur, who has four siblings and is the daughter of an engineer who worked in Panjab University when it was being built, says her family naturally gravitated to the sciences. Her elder brother was an engineer and two siblings, a sister and brother were PhDs. “My younger brother also pursued a career in science,” she adds.
Though her father also wanted her to pursue a PhD in London like her elder siblings, Kaur joined Panjab University because of “the financial conditions,” as she put it, to do a PhD in physics on a scholarship from the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR).
Her teachers ensured she remained curious about science. “Even though there were only three girls in non-medical in 1973 we had the freedom to spend all our time at the university labs,” she says.
Kaur, who started teaching right after completing her thesis on pion-emulsion interactions, has had to keep travelling from India to Italy where she is an invited scientist at EMFCSC (Ettore Majorana Foundation and Centre for Scientific Culture). She also spends time at CERN, something which has “only been possible because both my employers were okay with this set-up.”
A workaholic of sorts, Kaur also confesses that she did not take a vacation from 1976 to 1992 as she loved work. “Even now I don’t know what to do during a holiday and carry my laptop and books with me,” she says.
Born and brought-up in Chandigarh, Kaur says, “A lot of my time now goes into writing papers and editing journals. I will be at CERN in June and July as well.” On opportunities for women in science and research, Kaur says, “parents and families are still not open to the idea of their daughters pursuing research as it requires full time commitment but a little persuasion and counselling makes a lot of change. I have had students who were being forced by their parents to take up teaching after MSc, but I talked to those parents about the opportunities their daughters could explore. Now a lot of them are working in labs abroad and India.”
Kaur’s work currently involves working on the CMS experiment, installation, commissioning of the CMS detector, data taking, physics analysis and preparing reports related to the project.
Kaur admires the work of Italian physicist and her boss Antonino Zichichi and Nobel Laureate Samuel Ting. When not working, she spends time reading, cooking, baking and travelling.