Saturday, September 20, 2008

My Outlook India article on the LHC

My article on the LHC has just appeared in Outlook India, on page 123 of the print edition of the B-school special, dated September 29, 2009 2008. There was no space for acknowledgements, but this would not have happened but for Diptiman Sen, Sudhir Kumar Vempati and S. Uma Sankar, and also Debasish Ghosh of Aerospace who I have never met. So this may be considered the acknowledgement.

Update: Thanks to Abbas Ali for pointing out the error in the date!

Here is the link.

It is reproduced below for fear of link rot (I have checked with the South India Associate Editor that it is ok to do this.)

Subatomic Slugfest

The CERN experiment is the Apollo moon mission of particle physics

B. Ananthanarayan

On September 10, when the first proton beam was injected into the 'Large Hadron Collider' (LHC) at CERN, in Geneva, science began an exciting new voyage of discovery. The LHC is an awesome machine that will collide intense beams of protons, which will be accelerated in two rings of 27 km circumference. The energy would be seven times larger than the highest ever achieved by accelerators. Four immense detectors will surround the four interaction points of the collisions, and detect the particles produced in the fireball of the impact. At a later stage, the protons will be replaced by nuclei of lead atoms to replicate conditions similar to those that existed at the time of the Big Bang.

Likened to the Apollo moon mission in grandeur, the LHC—an engineering marvel—is the result of the effort of thousands of scientists and engineers, whose purpose is to advance their understanding of nature at its most minuscule scale, which can be probed only with the highest energies. And past great discoveries have come with higher and higher energies. These discoveries have had massive spinoffs in technology: indeed, CERN is the mother of the worldwide web, just as the space programme led to the revolution in materials, and nuclear physics is at the heart of the modern cancer therapy.

The LHC was built at a cost of billions of Swiss Francs by CERN member-states, along with the participation of countries like India, which enjoys 'observer' status. It is a proud moment for many players from India—among these, the DAE Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, barc, tifr and others have played notable parts, and teams from universities and research institutes have been involved at many stages of the project. ECIL, BHEL, Kirloskar Electric Co. Ltd, Crompton-Greaves Ltd are among companies that have participated in r&d and fabrication of components. The LHC project has demonstrated the coming of age of Indian science, technology, engineering and manufacturing in the 21st century.

The LHC will carry out its explorations in the deep sub-nuclear domain. Whereas people are familiar with chemistry as the science of atoms and molecules, we now know that atoms are made of nuclei and electrons, and nuclei of protons and neutrons, and protons and neutrons of quarks (and gluons). We have a picture of the elementary particles in nature, and how they participate in the electromagnetic interaction, weak and strong. The first arises from electrically charged particles interacting via the exchange of force carriers, namely mass-less photons, not unlike two children (electrons) who throw a tennis-ball (photon) back and forth in a game. The weak interactions lead to the decay of some radioactive isotopes, and also of free neutrons. Thus they are significant only at the sub-nuclear scale, and one may surmise that the corresponding force carriers are extremely massive. The strong interactions are those that trap quarks and gluons inside hadrons. There are also heavier quarks than those in protons and neutrons, all of which would have been abounding around us, but for the weak interactions, which lead to their spontaneous decay. Electrons too have heavier unstable cousins, and each of these have electrically neutral counterparts are known as neutrinos.

If indeed the electromagnetic and weak forces have a common origin as we now believe, how is it that the photon remained mass-less while the force carrier of the weak forces became massive? The question was answered by Peter Higgs in the 1960s, but at a price—a thus far undetected particle, the Higgs boson. With the gigantic energy in the collisions at LHC and the rates of collisions available here, we may at long last discover this particle. There has been gathering evidence for decades, and more recently of direct imprints, of so-called 'dark matter' in galaxies.Such particles will be produced in the fireballs of the LHC collisions and would leave distinct signatures in the detectors.

There have been many questions in the public mind about the project's safety. In popular theoretical scenarios, microscopic black holes are predicted to exist. If produced, they present no danger, as they bear no relation to the super-massive black sholes present in the centres of galaxies, and consequently we need have no fear of these! Furthermore, they would decay into conventional particles as a consequence of the results established by Steven Hawking.

It may yet be that the LHC will reveal wonders that no one has dreamt of. The voyage has just begun.

(The author is associate professor at the Centre for High Energy Physics, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and serves on the Board of Editors of the European Physical Journal)

I moderate a panel discussion on reservations

Arvind and Sarita of CONCERN, one of IISc's students organization requested me to moderate a panel discussion on aspects of the Reservation Policy. The three panelists were Prof. Muthiah from Osmania University, Thiru Adhyaman, social activist from Tamil Nadu, and Thiru Aanaimuthu, a venerable veteran of the struggle were the panelists. I don't know about others, but for me it was more eye opening than ever, about the condition of the Dalits in our country, and more so about the Dalits among the Dalits. I was particularly shocked to know about the Arundhatiars of TN. It was humbling for me to moderate the event.

Monday, September 08, 2008

India as a `Great Power' --- my article on the LRS page

Here is my article on the subject on the LRS page, reproduce below for fear of link-rot.

India as a `Great Power'

What does it mean for the people of India?

by B. Ananthanarayan

In the preceding months there has been a tremendous amount of activity in the political mainstream and elsewhere on the Indo-US Nuclear Deal. Much has been written about the supposed surrender of sovereignty by India, and even more about the pros and cons for the people of the country in terms of the energy security offered, and a lot of bandwidth consumed by pitiless analysis of the 1-2-3 Agreement, etc.. There have been hairs split about whether or not India is right in brokering these arrangements with the hated Bush administration of the sole imperialist superpower of the world. The Left Parties have criticized the deal mainly in the context of giving in to imperialism, and have argued that the people of India have serious reservations about making any deal with the USA.

While all the above may be true, it has been less clearly enunciated that the Indo-US Nuclear Deal actually comes at a time when the Indian ruling circles have clearly capitalized on the gains they have made in the post-cold war era and have emerged on the world scene as an ascendent imperilialist power.

In an interviewed granted to the newspaper Daily News & Analysis dated August 23, 2008, the India scholar Dr. Marie-Carine Lall says that the deal has nothing to do with energy and instead that ``It has a lot to do with India getting the Great Power status. In the UN Security Council, for instance, all the permanent members are recognised nuclear powers. Even though India was known to be a nuclear power since 1974, due to the Nuclear-Non-proliferation Treaty, it was not recognised as one. The Manmohan Singh government is trying to rectify that. This was only going to be possible if the US did this kind of a deal with India.'', and further that, ``Even if the deal fails, the fact that the US has extended the deal and tried to negotiate it with India means that recognition has already taken place.''

Such being the case, it may then be contingent to ask what does this really mean for the people of India, and indeed for the peoples of the region, and that of the world. Indeed, the people of India need to quiz the ruling circles of India on what they plan to do with such a `Great Power' status. Such a quiz would necessarily lead to rejecting the vision of the ruling circles and would pave the path for offering a different one.

It may first be important to ask what `Great Power' status has historically meant in the context of the Big Five. World over, the opinion would be that this status has been treated as a license by these countries, with the possible exception of China, in the last several decades, to willy-nilly interfere in the internal affairs of other countries, destablize governments, help organize coups, make countries favoured destinations for finance capital, and at times the launch of outright
wars of aggression and conquest. Is this the kind of `Great Power' status that the people of India would like their country to enjoy? An answer to this question cannot come without first considering the historical realities in the country at this time.

At this time in the country, we have a situation where there are increasing attacks on all the peoples of the country, here in the name of crushing naxalism, there in the name of
curbing Islamic terrorism. We have a situation where anyone opposing any activities of the state, whether it is opposing SEZ laws, or seizure of tribal lands, is simply locked away. There are brutal
police firings on a daily basis, here in Kashmir, there in Jaipur, once in Andhra, another time in Orissa. There are fires being set ablaze between religious groups in Kashmir and Orissa and
elsewhere, while simultaneously there are preparations for the general elections in 2009 and state elections across the country. While there is mass discontent, the ruling circles are closing
their ranks to put up a united defence of their interests, while it promises more devastation for the people of India. While the people of India are acutely conscious of what it means to live
under the yoke of such a ruling class, and such a political system as the one under which they find themselves, this system is praised by the USA and other western powers as `the largest democracy'. Given this grim scenario, there can only be alarm if a `Great Power' status
is accorded to a country of which such a ruling class is at the helm. Indeed, the `Great Power' status can come in handy to whip up jingositic fervour and divert the anger of the masses against an external perceived enemy. It can be used to hound religious minorities in the country and cause bitter divisions among the people. It can also be used to interfere in the affairs of other countries to create favourable conditions for Indian big business to operate. It can be useful to carry out militarization of the region on a scale unparalleled in the past. And most importantly, the `Great Power' status can be used to obtain immunity from international law to carry out criminal activities within the country against the peoples of the country, and outside its
boundaries. This is the precipice at which the people of India and the regions are staring at, at this time.

What then are the people of India to do? They must reject the vision of India that is modelled on the European model of great nation states. They must reject the complete divorce between the polity and the people. They must show that to separate the economic and political discussion from the actual impact that it has on the people is not to the benefit of the people. A discussion must begin on how India can be a factor for world peace, a factor for a secure future for the people of the country as well as for the region. Its immense wealth and resource, its trained population, its self-sacrificing working masses and peastry, must be put the service of the people of India and of the region, and not just to that of the rulers of India. The absence of a discussion on this subject would prepare the grounds for an aggressive India that will heighten the risk of war in the region, and the risk of utter devastation for a large fraction of the population of the region. The challenge of the times is to initiate and carry forward such a discussion.