30 Jan

A Dream Winter School for Every Science Lover

There are certainly those moments in everyone’s life that would be strongly etched in the hearts for a lifetime. I was fortunate to have been a part of the Winter School of Astroparticle Physics (WAPP 2016) organised by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) at Cosmic Ray Laboratory (CRL), Ooty. This write up is not about the technical contents of the lectures or the experimental sessions, but my experiences in multi-dimensions.

Even before getting into what this winter school is all about, it can be said with pride that it is one of the best winter schools in the entire world. The reason for this claim is rather simple – combining theory sessions with experimental sessions right at the heart of a world class research facility is a boon for any science student and is a rarity in the world.

Nearly 50 students from different colleges were chosen from among all the applications received across the country. The theme of the winter school was set – Astroparticle Physics. Everyday was split into two sessions. The morning sessions were filled with lectures on various topics related to cosmic rays, from different speakers across the world. The afternoon sessions were for the experiments. Totally 8 experiments were set up, 8 teams of students were formed, and each team would perform every experiment, one by one, everyday. I also blended in with the students, as one among them and was part of the entire journey.

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The schedule for everyday was well planned and jam packed. The lectures during the mornings, were literally ‘Extensive Knowledge Showers’, if i may use that set of words (as ‘Extensive Air Showers’ is one of the things being studied at CRL!). The curious students engaging and asking questions during and at the end each session are a testimony to the amazing lectures.

For the experimental sessions, each team comprised of students from various disciplines like physics, computer science, electronics, electrical and others. The teams were also a mix of students from different years in their respective colleges. This combo was a massive strength that opened up the learning opportunity for everyone in the team. For instance, during the experiments, a student with physics background helped his team in understanding the fundamental concepts involved, while another computer science student helped her team in understanding how experimental data was processed, and the electronics and electrical students helped their team members understand the circuitry involved and other related things.

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Students in college do not get such opportunities to work with students from other areas of disciplines. The interdisciplinary learning was at its best at the winter school. The scientists who took on the roles of a teacher to engage the students with different experiments made the entire experimental sessions unforgettable.

I could see the students very excited, involving themselves, getting the hands on the experiments. They were given the chance to change the settings, think on methods and means to achieve the objectives of the experiments. They were also taught how to embrace the results as received and not to tamper with the data to suit the expected results. This attitude would drive them to solve the problem. This is something that students never get to experience in school or college.  

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The entire conduct of this winter school could be compared to that of an orchestra. Just like different instruments taken up by different musicians are played in perfect harmony, different responsibilities were taken up by different teams and were flawlessly executed.

There was a catering team, a gardening team, video and photography team, a hospitality team and many others. For instance, the catering team was responsible for providing quality food to all the participants. Even the sourcing of vegetables, preparation of the food, serving the food were all done by the staff members. That is to essentially say none of the work was outsourced to a contractor. Prof Gupta said that cost was cut down by nearly 70 percent. This is huge!  It must be pointed out that all these teams comprised only of the staff members of CRL, and they were doing it in addition to their primary works. I was as much excited and inspired by this phenomenal display of teamwork, as i was with the ‘lectures and experiments’.

Everyone of us spent a little more than 12 hours a day at the school and I had ample time for informal interaction with both the students and the scientists. During one of our over the lunch conversations, Prof Gupta was telling me about how Indians in the early time made huge leaps in science, but for the most part, failed to keep records of what they did. This mistake, he said, is being heavily paid for now. During another conversation, he said that it was important to let students know and learn about the history of science, and some of the scientific breakthroughs. This, he said will induce interest in science among the students.

During another conversation, Mr. Atul Jain shared about his initial days when he was new at CRL. He said that, despite having a strong and solid foundation in education during his college, reality was very different than what he had experienced in college. He said the problems and challenges were real and were not merely ‘experiments in the lab’ with expected results. He said, an engineer, by his/her very nature should expect and love challenges and solve them.

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Probably one of the most inspiring moments was during a tea break. Prof Gupta asked to students to gather around a big table covered with a black cloth. He started uncovering the cloth to take out scintillators, one by one, researched and developed by them over the years between 2000 and 2003. He disclosed that it was during their 72nd attempt, spread over a span of 3 years, the scintillator was perfected. What lay beneath the black cloth was years of relentless hard work by a team of scientists. This development also put an end to sourcing the scintillators from outside the country which cost 10 times higher. The history of the development of this state-of-the-art plastic scintillator by TIFR, I strongly believe, is a story that deserves to be known by the student community and public at large, and to be carried forward for generations to come.

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Another unforgettable moment was when the legendary Prof. Sreekantan, the pioneer in the country for cosmic ray research, the one who laid the foundation for CRL in 1954, entered the seminar hall to address the students. Goosebumps swept the hall. His lecture took us all back in time and gave a historical perspective on Cosmic ray research in the country. His contributions to the field of cosmic rays and astrophysics are seminal, and to have seen him and listened to him was truly an honor.

I would like to end here by sharing another pleasant experience – the camp fire dinner every night! It was a perfect end to a day full of activities. For nearly 10 days, i must admit, that i was in a ‘dreamland’ and it nearly took a week after the school to get back into the normal routine mindset. The winter school happens every ‘EVEN’ year at Ooty and every ‘ODD’ year in Darjeeling and I am already looking forward to the next winter school in 2018 and if you are a college student and love science, better watch out for calls for applications for WAPP!

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About Obuli Chandran

Science Enthusiast | Educator | Entrepreneur | Amateur Astronomer