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.