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Indian connection to the God particle: From scientific expertise to Shiva's dance

Jaimon Joseph jaithemon

Updated: July 11, 2012, 10:20 AM IST
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"Who knows for certain? Who shall here declare it?

Whence was it born, whence came creation?

The gods are later than this world's formation;

Who then can know the origins of the world?

None knows whence creation arose;

And whether he has or has not made it;

He who surveys it from the lofty skies,

Only he knows- or perhaps he knows not."

- The Rig Veda (X:129)

It's being hailed as the biggest scientific discovery of the 21st century. After 50 years of searching - scientists have finally found the Higgs boson - commonly called the God particle. A Nobel prize winner, Leon Lederman, had actually called it the "God-damn" particle - because it was so bloody hard to find.

Scientists tracked it down thanks to the largest, most expensive experiment in history. Some would say it was an attempt to peek into the mind of God.

How was our universe, the stars and planets formed? To solve that big mystery, scientists began peering into small things. Into atoms and the small particles that form atoms. They wanted to find the smallest, most fundamental particle in nature.

Electrons, protons, neutrons - we've all learnt about all these in school. But scientists knew there were even smaller particles. They have a theory - called the Standard Model of Physics - that's used to explain how everything in our universe works. According to the Standard Model, all matter is made of six fundamental particles. Over the past decades, scientists searched for and found five of those particles. The sixth - called the Higgs boson - they could never find.

That was a big problem. Because according to their theory - the Higgs boson gives mass to all matter. Without mass, electrons, protons, neutrons and all other particles would never combine. If they wouldn't combine, atoms would not be formed, nor would larger things like the sun, moon, earth, the galaxies and our universe. You and I would never exist.

Since it was such an important particle, scientists looked really hard for it - for almost fifty years. When they couldn't find it, they began to wonder if their theories were wrong. If their explanations about our world were somehow flawed.

Searching for such small things is really expensive business. It costs $10 billion, to be precise. That's what it took to build the Large Hadron Collider or LHC. It's a 27-kilometre-long underground tunnel in the shape of a ring, built by the Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire or CERN . The tunnel crosses the borders of both France and Switzerland.

Inside the tunnel, scientists accelerate protons, or tiny subatomic particles - to just under the speed of light. Then they crash these protons against each other. - breaking them up into trillions of smaller, tinier particles. Sensors inside the tunnel record those particles and computers around the world slowly sift through the data, trying to identify traces of the Higgs boson.

Interestingly, the Higgs in "Higgs boson" comes from Peter Higgs, the British scientist who in 1964, first suggested that such a particle existed. But Boson, is named after Satyendra Nath Bose, an Indian statistical physicist who was a contemporary of Albert Einstein. His equations helped prove Max Planks Law - a theory that says light has a dual nature. It moves in discrete packets, even as it moves in a wave.

But the Indian connection doesn't end there. Of more than 2000 scientists working at The Large Hadron Collider, at least 200 were from India. India also contributed almost $25 million to the project.

There's more. Inside the 27 kilometre long tunnel are almost 1,232 cryo-magnets, that are crucial for accurately guiding protons around the ring. Each magnet weighs almost 32 tonne and each sits on extremely accurate motion positioning systems developed, among other places, at the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology (RRCAT) in Indore, India.

Delhi University developed special sensors for the Compact Muon Solenoid or CMS detector inside the tunnel. CMS played a crucial role in ultimately detecting the Higgs boson.

Indian institutes like Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai; Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC), Trombay; Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics (SINP), Kolkata; RRCAT, Indore; Benares Hindu University and the universities of Delhi, Jaipur and Punjab were connected to CERN in Geneva by fibre optic cables.

They were part of a new, super-fast, worldwide Internet called the grid - which was used to analyse data from the experiment. Almost 15 petabytes of data (1 petabyte is quadrillion bytes or 1,000 terabytes) was generated every year at CERN. If that data was recorded on CDs and stacked up, it would form a pile of compact discs 12 miles high. Distributing it among universities in India and elsewhere, helped process the data faster.

Professor Jim Virdee, one of the founder members of the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) detector in the LHC, is an Englander of Indian Origin. Professor Archana Sharma is the only Indian to work constantly at CERN for the past 25 years. Professor Vikas Sinha of the Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics, Kolkata, designed a special chip that LHC used to process signals. Professor Vinod Chohan was employed by CERN to lead a group of scientists who tested all the magnets in the system.

Indian universities sent not just senior scientists but also PhD students to CERN. These students lived and worked there for up to nine months every year, helping set up a lot of the crucial hardware and software in the machine.

Finally, India's Department of Atomic Energy gifted a two-metre bronze statue of the Nataraja to CERN on June 18, 2004.

What does Nataraja have to do with atoms? In an icon developed in south India by 9th and 10th century artists during the Chola period (880-1279 CE), Nataraja shows the Hindu God Lord Shiva dancing.

Nataraja is shown with four hands that represent the cardinal directions. The left foot is elegantly raised, the right foot tramples illusion and ignorance. The upper left hand holds a flame, The upper right hand holds an hourglass drum or 'dumroo'.

It is believed Shiva's drum produces the first sounds of creation. As ripples of sound course through matter, it comes alive and radiates all around Shiva. But even as he creates and makes matter alive, Shiva is dancing within a ring of fire, signifying the destruction he will soon bring about. In the Hindu religion, Nataraja represents the endless cycle of birth and death.

"Modern physics has shown that the rhythm of creation and destruction is not only manifest in the turn of the seasons and in the birth and death of living creatures but is also the very essence of inorganic matter. For modern physicists, Shiva's dance is the dance of subatomic matter." - Fritjof Capra in the book "The Tao of Physics".
First Published: July 11, 2012, 10:20 AM IST
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