Scientist Interview

“The doors to understanding the Universe better have been unlocked”

On July 4, Higgs Boson was discovered at CERN, the Swiss laboratory carrying out a path-breaking experiment on particle physics. The name is derived partly from that of 20th century Indian scientist, Dr Satyendra Nath Bose who made pioneering contributions on theories of particle physics. This July, there was another significant Indian connection—Dr Archana Sharma, an Indian origin scientist at CERN was present at the epicenter of the experiment at the LHC (Large Hydron Collider). She hails from Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh. She’s been associated with CERN since 1989 and is presently a project leader of the research and development team that works on high-rapidity upgrade of the LHC. She spoke to Rajeev Sharma and Prashant Tandon after the discovery of Higgs Boson
At what scale do you put the discovery of Higgs Boson in relation with other discoveries like gravity by Newton, Theory of Relativity by Albert Einstein or any other?
The evidence / discovery is at a similar ground breaking scale since it opens the doors to the frontiers of our understanding and knowledge of the standard model of physics and the Universe today.

How this discovery helps in understanding universe and its creation of which there is a common perception that only 5 per cent known?
Once we unlock the secrets of how mass comes about, then we may even be able to explain how mass is distributed in the universe, or how it went missing. Is there one or many Universes? Are there more dimensions?

Five Sigma confirmation is enough or the further experiments would be conducted? What would be next phase of experiments at CERN?
This is just the beginning, in order to examine the characteristics and properties of the boson, we will need several years of study; hence the next phase of these experiments will be focused on these studies.

The particle discovered is 125 times heavier than proton. Any conclusions thus far on dark matter which is a larger part of the mass of universe? Has any conclusive evidence been recorded on the dark matter during this phase of experiment?
The constraints for evidence of dark matter are becoming smaller by ruling out some models; while the quest continues.

Besides understanding of universe how this discovery will help in advancing medical science or energy requirements?
Basic science continues and investment in research and development harvest rewards for society naturally. Some of direct spin offs can be seen for example in medicine: CCD imagers designed for the Hubble Space Telescope now guide breast biopsy procedures reducing surgery costs by 75%. Adaptive optics from advance Telescopes help map the eye retina and are leading to improved surgery and corrective lenses. PET (Positron Emission Tomography) is a very important technique for localizing and studying certain types of cancer by using antimatter. Detectors developed at CERN replace film with digital detectors and digital X-rays allow radiologists to gather high-quality image and expose patient to much lower doses of X-rays. Mammograms are low-dose X-rays for the detection of breast cancer and around 9000 of the 17000 accelerators operating in the world today are used for medicine and therapy.

Higgs Boson is also derived from Satyandra Nath Bose the Indian scientist. How do you feel as a scientist from India at the epicentre where his theory got a stamp?
One of the proudest moments of my life; although my contribution is miniscule compared to Dr. S.N. Bose.

What is the contribution of Indian scientists and labs at LHC. How big is the Indian contingent?
There have been around 150 Indian scientists associated in one way or another in the peak times of LHC and detector commissioning. “High-energy physicists from India, mainly from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), have been participating in experiments at CERN since the 1970s. Subsequently, the TIFR-EHEP Group joined the L3 experiment, contributing hardware for the endcap hadron calorimeter, making major contributions to core software and participating in important physics analyses such as the lineshape analysis, Higgs searches, QCD and b-quark physics.
In the 1990s, The Centre for Advanced Technology (CAT) at Indore delivered hardware for LEP, and the Indian High-Energy Heavy Ion Physics Team contributed to the construction of Photon Multiplicity Detector for the WA93 experiment at the CERN-SPS, followed by physics analyses and publications.
All these developments paved the way for the Indian AEC’s (Atomic Energy Commission) decision in 1996 to take part in the construction of LHC and to contribute to the construction of the CMS and ALICE detectors. The success of the DAE (Department of Atomic Energy)-CERN partnership in the LHC has also led to a new Co-operation on Novel Accelerator Technologies (NAT), which envisions DAE’s participation in CERN’s Linac4, SPL and CTF3 projects, as well as CERN’s contribution to DAE’s programmes.”

India has produced bright scientists and yet the country lags behind in studies of pure sciences. What reasons do you ascribe for this?
Even though our teachers are highly respected and enjoy an elevated echelon in society; teaching is not considered as a coveted career choice simply due to monetary returns in comparison with industry, and from careers that follow studying medicine, engineering and management. The reality for the average young student growing up in India is to get an education that is a formula for success in terms of job security and maximum financial gain. The society and peer pressure is enormous and all the curiosity and questions we seek answers to as a kid, get lost in this turmoil of “completing education and getting a decent job”. Nevertheless, now we are moving with an accelerated pace and careers in academics are also becoming pretty attractive and this trend must grow.
Just as an example, in Switzerland school teaching is one of the highest paid and coveted jobs, requiring rigorous academic, psychological training and competitive selection.
As a scientist at the hub of biggest experiment of science in the history what you expect from government and corporate houses to prove more thrust to study of pure sciences in India.
Excellence in teaching and good research and development are essential components in every science and technology college in the Government as well as the private sector. The funds for pure science should be managed and accounted for by competent authorities. We will be amazed at what young children can do.

CERN is richer by 100 dollars as Stephen Hawking lost the bet that Higgs Boson will never be found. Where there any critical moments at CERN when scientists felt that they will lose the bet to Hawking?
Nature tells the truth, it is win-win anyway!

July 2012

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