Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

Indian experimental physics

Posted by Arjendu on January 18, 2009

I haven’t posted in a while, and am I ever glad that Melissa has had a run of excellent posts on this blog, else this would be one dormant space. Excuses: Suffice to say that my various different responsibilities have been a little more demanding than I would like, but more that I was unable to carve the head-space and the efficiency to write here.

But before I completely lose the memories, I’d like to briefly report on a blitz of a trip through India that I took in December. About a third of it was for science — I started by visiting Gautam Menon of the Indian Institue of Mathematical Sciences in Chennai (Madras) for a talk. I knew Gautam when we were both undergraduates at St. Stephen’s, and we re-connected through this blog, so I have already reaped the benefits of the time I have spent writing here, and should keep me motivated to keep writing.

IIMSc was really fun to visit — there’s a large collection of theorists (of course! with a name like that). I learned about the excellent work there, got feedback on my own stuff (I talked about my paper with Arik) but more so, got to see up close how science is doing in India. Things have changed a lot, particularly on the financial front: about 10 years ago, when I gave a talk in Delhi, all my hosts were able to offer me was — essentially — cab-fare. Things are far more generous now — flights etc taken care of, and the amount of money available in grants at the highest levels comparable to or better than the United States. I heard about people getting $2M to start up labs at the Research Institutes (India is structured a bit like Europe — most of the funding and prestige flows to stand-alone research institutes, and Universities are considered to be teaching institutions). Wow!

I also went — after a brief break with family — to an International Conference on Cold Atoms in rural Bengal, a hair-rising ride through late night fog away from Kolkata (where I spoke on my work with Kenfack and Gong) heard great talks and connected — and re-connected — with a lot of excellent physicists, and figured out even more places to visit in the future. This being India, and India being what it is, I even discovered that I was related to one of the people there. I had no idea — relatives in neighboring fields. Hah! This is also where I really got to meet the experimentalists as well. It only confirmed my sense of opportunities increasing greatly. Let me clarify — Indian theorists have been thriving for years. But experimental physics in India — despite the remarkable early example of C.V. Raman — isn’t at the same level. The typical graduate student doesn’t get to do any truly interesting experiments in the home-grown labs, and then goes abroad for post-doc training where finally (s)he does something at the highest level, and then returns back to India to try to set up something, but struggles with getting expensive equipment, which handicaps the next set of graduate students, etc. Perhaps this cycle will be broken.

It’s so much fun for me to combine visits to India with science. It was a really wonderful visit for me, and I hope to do this far more often than I have in the past.

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One Response to “Indian experimental physics”

  1. Savyasachi said

    Dear Prof. Pattanayak,

    I think it is a bit of an understatement to say that experimental physics isn’t up to the same level as theoretical physics in India.

    I finished my thesis work more than a year ago in the US, and the first thing I noticed when I returned was how experimentalists are looked down upon. Forget experimentation, even data analysts are thought of as “mere number crunchers”, whatever that means!

    I have been thinking about this a lot as I tried to overcome my despair about the state of experiemntal science in India over the past year, and as I see it, the roots of this attitude are sown in childhood, by parents, teachers and society in general.

    While that analysis is interesting I am not particularly interested in it anymore (it was essential for me personally for a year, though). What I’d like to see, and really be a part of, is a huge change, REAL change, in our thinking, and in my opinion this is possible ONLY through the establishment of several good laboratories in many different fields of physics in India. This needs to be done at a large scale, and responsibility needs to be given to BOTH old and young scientists for establishing and running such labs.

    How exactly to convince leading physicists (most of whom are theorists!) at this stage in my career is beyond me – perhaps a first postdoc is not the time to think about this at all. But isn’t this economic downturn the IDEAL opportunity to attract youngsters to basic and applied sciences, and to set up labs that will produce results not just in fundamental research, but also industrial applications?

    I’d love to hear from you about this, whenever you can spare some time.

    Best Regards,

    Savyasachi

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