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!

19 Nov

OOTY – A place for Science Lovers too!

For us Coimbatoreans, whenever we feel bored, or have an unplanned holiday, or sometimes for no reason at all, we just pack our bags, get on our bikes and drift towards Ooty. Sometimes we go just to have a cup of tea. Ooty is much more than a neighboring district to us. It is a home away from home. The experience Ooty offers us each time is nothing short of blissful.

I have always known Ooty only as the Queen of Hills, one of the top destinations for tourists from across the country. But, all of this changed a few weeks back when I had the privilege to visit Cosmic Ray Laboratory (CRL) and Radio Astronomy Center (RAC), located in Ooty!  

I have been a Science enthusiast all my life, and I have been a science educator for more than three years now. I love my students to get practical exposure of various concepts, as much as possible, and I always keep exploring such places to take my students to.

About a month ago, I stumbled upon an article in ‘The Hindu’ titled ‘Indian muon trackers get a handle on solar storms’. I just started reading the article, the very first line gave me a pleasant shock. It said “GRAPES-3 experiment is a special telescope array established in Ooty… “ I paused. Yes, it read Ooty! That’s our neighbor, the one we have always known as a destination for tourists, now revealing itself as a destination for Science lovers! I instantly felt the need to visit this facility.

The first cosmic ray experiment was  started in 1955 as GRAPES-1 by Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), which was upgraded in various stages to GRAPES-2, before the new experiment GRAPES-3 was set up at RAC site, about 8 km from the old site. GRAPES-3 (Gamma Ray Astronomy PeV EnergieS Phase – 3) – a project to study cosmic rays, equipped with air shower detectors and muon detectors, was started about 25 years ago, as a collaboration between TIFR, India and Osaka City University, Japan. I got in touch with Mr. Arjunan, a senior research associate, through one of the teachers from a school in Ooty. I called him and expressed our team’s interest in visiting the place. Without too much questions asked, he permitted us to come over and meet him.

We reached on a cold Monday morning. The moment i walked in, i was taken in by the Scenery, the Silence and the Science of the place. My expectation was to just meet a few people and have a small chat about the research facility, the experiments conducted, and if possible get a quick glimpse of the facility. But what awaited me would turn out to be truly an amazing experience!

In the facility, there was an air shower detector array which had totally 400 detectors that were operational. That sight of detectors placed amidst the green and lush garden, is still frozen in my eyes! Then there was, the muon detector area, an underground facility, with multi-layers of concrete slabs, at the end of which number of detectors were placed. This arrangement, was to allow for only high energy muons to reach the detectors while filtering away all the other particles that would otherwise reach. There were about 3600 detectors in place and there was also another area close-by that was being prepared to install more detectors.

Mr. Arjunan, who has been in CRL for more than 20 years, passionately explained about how all the data, that was being collected by the air shower and muon detector, were digitized and taken to computers for analysis. He even took us to the place where the various parts of detectors were made and explained about how each part functions. One of the primary parts was the Scintillator, which generates photons (light) in response to incident radiation, and these photons are allowed to be incident on a Photomultiplier Tube (PMT), which converts them into electrical pulse. He also added that almost all the parts, including scintillators, have been made indigenously, and this statement of his gave me instant goosebumps – state of the art equipment, Made in India!

Another young and energetic graduate, Mr. Ramesh, an electronics expert, was beaming with joy as he was explaining me the basics of the electronic circuits that he developed in-house for the detectors. I even had an exciting discussion on cosmic rays with one of the scientific officers, Mr. Jagadeesan. The officer in charge of the facility, Mr. Atul Jain, was extremely busy that day, but despite that he assured us that he would definitely give us some time for a chat before the day ends. And he even arranged for us to have lunch at the canteen.

Mr. Atul, expressed his interest on getting kids excited with science and has been interacting with students across different age groups. But he said, they couldn’t do much on that, as they had their own hectic work schedule involved and they hardly find time to engage in such activities. Despite that, he said, reasonable number of students from school and colleges do visit them in a year.

The permission has to be sought well in advance and CRL will definitely get back based on the availability of time. This is not a science exhibition center or museum for students or others to just walk in and experience it. It is a research facility and hence prior permission is a must. He also said, every year on national science day, 28th February, RAC holds a grand event where kids from anywhere can come visit their facility and have a tour, and CRL would also be a part of the event. The event is aimed at promoting science education by outreaching to students and the public alike.

I could see, each and everyone working hard, day in and day out, pursuing their goals independently, while at the same time they seemed to effortlessly reinforce each other’s roles by being excellent team members working towards a common set of objectives. The entire research facility seemed to have been pervaded with a work culture that is irresistible and inspiring. There was warmth and humbleness in reception, dedication and focus in work.

I even had a feeling, that had i been exposed to research facilities like CRL during my school days, i would have been inspired and chosen a career path in science research. Students can get to learn a lot from this place, not just the science concepts and other technical aspects involved, but how a research facility actually works and be inspired by the scientists they interact with.

I am tempted to write about my experiences at RAC as well, but that deserves a separate space for itself. Interestingly I also came to know that there were more researches happening in Ooty. There was potato research facility, water and soil erosion research facility, tribal research facility and more. Yes, Ooty has them all, and I am planning to visit each of these facilities and write about them.

Though I have visited Ooty many times in the past to just to experience a cup of tea, now i have started to visit this wonderful place to experience Science over a cup of tea!

04 Nov

Letting the Elephants out at Vidya Vanam

Elephants are fascinating creatures. As a child anything huge always grabs attention. When I saw an Elephant for the first time in a temple at my aunt’s town, she told me that I followed it everywhere as it clomped around the town. The sheer size with innocence always used to fill up my mind with curiosity. A Wildlife Journalist at a school program was sharing stories and his observation about Elephants. He was telling us that Elephants are like Habitat Engineers and there can be no forest without them. They alter and modify habitats by pushing over trees, walking through bushes and help the ecosystem grow. They seem to have complex consciousnesses that are capable of strong emotions. Elephant’s unique intelligence with craziness, grief, altruism, compassion always enthralled me.

I find the ‘Mind full of questions’ just like an Elephant. It roams everywhere in search of answers. It is crazy, unique and all it needs is freedom. Once the questions are answered, few more piles up and like the very nature of elephant, It cannot be contained by building roads, walls or electric fences.

The wild thought struck when we were at Vidya Vanam School at Anaikatti for our Astronomy Night out program for kids. They were kind enough to host us and it was an opportunity to work with kids of Vidya Vanam School. Here is an anecdote shared by one of the kid. The scribbling by kids and the warli art in the walls of the school got inscribed in my memory. The one that got me hooked was the Monumental Hall at the School and something that I have been talking about ever since. We had the midnight activities of our program at the Monumental Hall.

In one of our activity, we let kids ask any question related to Science and we tried answering them. The kids when started opening up with questions it was initially silent with few, later everybody followed and exploded with questions, letting their Elephant out. Like how Elephants are domesticated in temple limited by the chain of ignorance, fear engulfs kid’s ‘mind full of question’. May be all it takes is another kid with Elephant to open it up or the nature of asking questions is contagious.

Kids of diverse age, school, experience, places, all sat together in the midnight and the sight was amazing. Parents, kids, teachers all working together, Learning. Made me feel that Diversity nurtures Knowledge. When the clash of thoughts and experience are brought together to a place, learning thrives. Like the name of the School, Forest and its diversity is all that is needed to nurture.

The moment with so many thoughts make me wonder the source of it. Could it be the place? the children? the parents, teachers involved? or the time? or could it be, all of them. The pursuit of the thought to find patterns for it to be true might be still on, but learnt that an environment for it to happen can be created by embracing Diversity.