Making waves at CERN

Subhra Priyadarshini

doi:10.1038/nindia.2009.246 Published online 15 July 2009

The Indian students at CERN this year with CERN physicist Archana Sharma (third from left).

India is making its presence felt at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research CERN, the world class particle physics laboratory on the Franco-Swiss border that is scheduled to switch on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) for the second time in October this year.

India already participates actively in CERN's accelerator technologies, computing, ALICE (A Large Ion Collider Experiment) and CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) experiments as well as its theoretical physics programmes.

Indian scientists from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai and Kolkata-based Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics and the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre are contributing largely to the LHC experiments. They are gearing up to study the properties of particles generated by the much-hyped proton-proton collisions at LHC start up, to look for answers to questions like the origin of the universe and properties of quark-gluon plasma, respectively.

But there's more to India beyond the LHC project at CERN.

For starters, this year for the first time an 11-member student contingent from India is interning at the particle physics lab for a capacity building training programme. Last year, there were two students on this programme. Says CERN physicist Archana Sharma, whose personal efforts have brought about this feat," This is hopefully a precursor to many rich and fruitful years of Indian students at CERN." The internships, she says, are designed to excite and steer young minds towards science and technology and motivate them towards a career in basic science, research and development.

The students have been selected from the National Institutes of Technology (NIT) in Durgapur and Calicut, and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, Delhi and Guwahati. They have undertaken a wide variety of projects with applications in future detectors and possible use in medical diagnostics, weather forecasting, sophisticated control systems, high tech tools for archaeology and meteorology and high speed communications. They will also undertake projects that have implications for large volume air-conditioning, low Dose 'X-ray' diagnostics, high tech mechanical and electronics engineering.

The India presence at CERN got a boost with the visit of former president and India's missile man A P J Abdul Kalam in May 2005. As of now, Sharma is pursuing another proposal to seek funding from India's departments of science and technology and atomic energy to create a permanent exchange programme for Indian scientists and students at CERN.

The proposed 'India–CERN Knowledge Exchange Programme' would look at training the younger generation of Indian scientists, and to facilitate an increase in their participation in CERN projects through summer training programmes , visits and topical seminars by eminent scientists including Nobel Laureates from CERN, participation of Indian students in CERN schools and instituting short-term India-CERN post-doctoral programmes. The proposed programme would be woven around CERN's traditional strongholds -- theoretical and experimental particle physics, instrumentation and detector technologies, electronics, computer science and computing, information and communication technology and accelerator technologies.

There's also a proposal to enable participation of some Indian students in the European School of High Energy Physics, the CERN School of Computing and CERN Accelerator Schools."With the right nudge, our students can be more successful. The idea is to give them that chance," Sharma told Nature India.

Also under discussion are India–CERN Post-doctoral positions to provide young post-docs from India an opportunity to spend about one year at CERN. The India-CERN programmes would cost the Indian government close to Rs 112 million if it pledges support. "CERN has a very limited budget spread fairly over all the other summer students from a total of about 60 observer and non-member state countries. Though a couple of students have been accommodated last year from India, there is no coordinated program like some of the other Observer States," she says. This year's internship students were funded by their respective institutes.

Sharma says for the last few decades, non member states, namely countries outside Europe have begun joining the various collaborations and research experiments at the previously 'all European' CERN. India entered into the research collaborations at CERN during the 70s and 80s in a sporadic manner, and since the 90s a well developed and coordinated effort started. In 2002, the CERN Council granted an 'observer' status to India for having contributed equipment and technical teams to the Large Electron Positron (LEP), the Proton Synchrotron (PS)injector complex and fixed-target experiments.

This effort was formalised in an agreement in 1991 and extended in 2001 for another decade. In the framework of the 1996 protocol signed with India's department of atomic energy, India became one of the first non-member states to make significant contributions to the LHC.

Dillip Jana, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, currently on deputation from the US department of energy to the ATLAS project in CERN, says these are great times for Indian physicists. "CERN has a number of Indians on collaboration projects. India's historic strength in the physical sciences is doing us good," he says.


Latest information from CERN says the LHC switch-on has been pushed back to mid-November, 2009.