09 Jun

The Battle of Magnetic Fields: Observations at Cosmic Ray Laboratory, Ooty, India

On a fine morning in June 2015, a team of scientists at Cosmic Ray Laboratory (CRL), Ooty, went ecstatic, as they observed a burst of Galactic Cosmic Rays following a Coronal Mass Ejection event. I could only imagine the upbeat mood of the scientists at the CRL facility when they ran through these observations! After a detailed analysis of these events, they made a major announcement in a paper titled Transient Weakening of Earth’s Magnetic Field Probed by a Cosmic Ray Burst. And in layman terms that would mean A Crack in Earth’s Magnetic Field. As a science enthusiast, I was thrilled, and even more so because, the news came from my neighboring city – Ooty in India.

You have already come across quite a few new words mentioned in the above paragraphs and your curious minds would tempt you with some of the followings questions:

What are Cosmic Rays?

Earth has a Magnetic Field!?

Coronal Mass Ejections, what are they?

Of what significance is this discovery to me anyway?

Let’s make sense of them now.

GALACTIC COSMIC RAYS:

Cosmic Rays are high energy particles (mostly protons and nuclei of heavier atoms), whose origins are not from within our solar system,  but from within our Milkyway galaxy or from outside of it. Hence the name ‘Galactic Cosmic Rays’! These charged particles get such high energies from some of the most violent events in the universe – like from a quasar, a supernovae, etc.

The cosmic rays can collide (interact) with matter (air molecules) in the atmosphere and produce a shower of secondary particles. ‘Muon’ is one such particle. We are most familiar with particles such as protons, electrons and neutrons, but behold – We have an entire zoo of particles! As more ‘high energy’ cosmic rays interact with atmosphere, more the number of muons are produced!

A muon telescope can detect muons, much like how your binoculars or an optical telescope or a radio telescope can detect photons.GRAPES 3 Tracking Muon Telescope at CRL Ooty, is the largest and one of the most sensitive ones in the world.

EARTH’S MAGNETIC FIELD:

One competitive edge in sustaining life, that Earth has, but poor Mars doesn’t – is A Magnetic Field. The charged particles from cosmic rays and our Sun, slowly, over hundreds of millions of years, stripped the Mars of its atmosphere because it couldn’t protect itself as it lacked a magnetic shield. But good for Earth, our atmosphere isn’t going anywhere! We have a protector!

Earth has it’s own magnetic field (one can imagine Earth to behave like a really big bar magnet). As most of us would have definitely tried in our childhood days, Iron filings, when sprinkled on sheet of paper placed on a bar magnet, would align themselves to form a pattern. The pattern in which they align would represent the magnetic field and its strength around the magnet. Earth can also be imagined as a magnet having a similar pattern of magnetic field around it (but in 3 dimensions). This is our shield! Our watchful protector! But no matter how protected we are, some particles will have sufficient energy to break in.

THE BATTLE OF FIELDS:

On 22nd June 2015, ‘GRAPES-3 tracking muon telescope’ detected a sharp increase in the number of muons, lasting for almost 2 hours. Only 40 hours prior to this, 150 million kms away from our Earth, huge amounts of plasma (charged particles) were ejected from the Sun and began their journey towards us – A Coronal Mass Ejection event.

It is known that the plasma themselves carry a magnetic field as they travel. When the magnetic fields of the plasma reach and interact, they reshape the magnetic field patterns around the Earth. Such events are called geomagnetic storms. This is like disturbing the magnetic field pattern of a bar magnet by bringing in another bar magnet with opposite orientation near it.

These events can weaken the magnetic field of Earth for a brief period of time based on the orientation and strength of the interacting field. This weakened field is now like an open invitation, not only for more number of ‘high energy’ cosmic rays,  but also for ‘lower energy’ cosmic rays that were previously shielded by our magnetic field.

This is an epic battle going on endlessly, where the cosmic rays are constantly trying to breach, but our defense is strong enough to shield. These cosmic rays, however, occasionally, are flanked by an entire army of charged particles from the Sun (Coronal mass ejection), which can weaken our defense system, and cosmic rays are able to breach and harm. But as this battle begins to fade away, our magnetic field regains its strength.

The mesmerising northern and southern lights, which you can enjoy seeing from latitudes closer to the poles, are visual spectacles across the night sky driven by the epic battle of the magnetic fields!

Studying cosmic rays can help us in understanding the nature of geomagnetic storms, the consequences they can have on Earth, and be better prepared to handle more severe storms. Such events can potentially damage our satellites, cripple our communication systems and in most severe cases can short-circuit high voltage transformers, thus permanently destroying the electrical grid, and thereby depriving humanity of electrical power on Earth. Today can we imagine life without electricity?

After the news of this breakthrough discovery was in the air, it was not only the discovery, but the legend of Cosmic Ray Laboratory itself  that started to spread like wildfire across the world. Right from the inspiring work culture and ethics, to building the state of the art equipments, to organising winter schools to share the knowledge and wisdom onto the students and much more – Cosmic Ray Laboratory – I would say is an epitome of an amazing​ research facility.

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

Science – The first line of Defence

When i was a kid, i was always enthralled by the night sky and all those twinkling objects. My school teachers taught me that objects that twinkle are stars and the ones that don’t are planets. Little did i realize that these stars and planets were thought to have profound influence in the life of people and is a major decision maker in most people’s life.

I have been to temples, I have prayed, and hoping for some divine intervention for scoring good marks in exams, or just pray for a teacher to be absent for the day whose homework i hadn’t completed. I have listened to the prayers in the name of the star i was born with, and each time, I have felt better, that supreme power has listened and will make sure my problems fly away. Why did i believe in all this? Because people around me everywhere did so. It was considered a trait of good people. Good people pray.

Almost all major decisions in life that people around me in the society make, are highly influenced by divine intervention. Decisions like choice of life partner in marriage, starting a business, building a house, or in even worse cases deciding the career are heavily under the influence of stars and planets. As a kid, though I wasn’t bothered about this whole ‘predict your future’ stuff, I also did not feel to ask why or how all of this were true. Sometimes even when i felt to ask, wouldn’t know how to proceed in understanding these things.

Once, when i was searching online for top 10 science books that every science lover must read, I came across a book by Dr. Carl sagan – ‘The Cosmos’. Ever since I started reading it, I have been on a reading spree. Through his book, he had written in depth about how to think rationally and why it was important to reason things out, not just for the sake of an individual, but for the entire mankind and its future. He showed me how science was not just a subject, but a rational approach to study things.

Imagine someone looking at your horoscope and telling you that your time is good for starting a business, and you do start and actually end up doing it good. You would start to firmly believe in astrology and start making your future decisions also based on whether the time is good or bad. Also the person who predicted it for you, would take up your case a success story and start marketing it. His prediction could have equally gone wrong, according to principles of probability!

If you give a little thought on this, the above case can be compared to predicting a head on a coin toss and claiming success if the result actually turns out to be head. It always had a 50 percent probability to happen. Some of the predictions may seem very less likely due to chance, but not impossible, wherein people will believe in divine intervention. Any event that an astrologer claims to predict will always have a non zero probability of happening. If prediction turns to be true, we celebrate, if not, we move on.

Science doesn’t work this way. Newton’s laws works for everyone, everywhere, everytime. Gravity works for everyone, everywhere, everytime. The evidence doesn’t rely on case to case basis. The evidence in Science is all about the experiments and results that can be replicated anywhere by anyone across the world. It is not a belief system that any one person or a group of people can claim ownership for.

The most important thing in Science is to question, question anything. Questioning opens up the mind. It empowers you. Sometimes the answers to the questions can shake the very foundations of the belief system that you put your life on. We must learn to embrace things with evidence and reject things otherwise.

It is human tendency to fall for such pseudoscience phenomena and this is where science becomes the one most desirable thing for a human as the first, and the only, line of defence against such ‘stuffs’. I am leaving you with a quote by Dr. Carl Sagan:

“Science is not perfect, it is often misused. It’s only a tool, but it is the best tool we have. Self correcting, ever changing, applicable to everything. With this tool we vanquish the impossible. “

22 Aug

Coimbatore’s love for Science

For a lot of kids, Science is hard, and Math is even harder. In our education system’s framework, all students, regardless of their ability to learn, are strengthened and tested mostly on their memory and content reproduction skills, and not on understanding the concepts. The very nature of this framework is the reason for majority of students to lose interest in these subjects. I have been through the same system, I can say this, and I am sure a lot of you would agree with me on this. Of course there are individual schools and teachers who take up initiatives on their own to educate students in its true spirit.

Most of the affordable private schools and government schools would not have enough funds to invest on a good infrastructure for learning Science. Also reading from the class textbook, over and over again, is not of any help in learning, except that a few facts can be remembered. But if it is only for the remembrance of facts that we learn at School, we might as well google for the facts anytime.

The regional science center in the city is a complete breath of fresh air, a place that certainly will inspire kids and induce interest in Science.

Regional Science center, located on the Avinashi road, right behind Genny’s Club, is one of the lesser known places in Coimbatore. We  have never been short of reasons to feel proud about Coimbatore, and Regional Science Center is just another reason!

The place captivated me right during my very first visit. As a Science enthusiast and educator, I was in awe, looking at the infrastructure and the range of facilities the place had. How could have I missed this lovely place for so long? Ever since my first visit, I have been visiting it frequently and each time I am in, the wonder and enthusiasm always feels like for the first time!

As you walk down the pathway that leads to the entrance, you are greeted with an optical illusion, giving a sense of what awaits you inside! Also as you walk down, you can’t take your eyes off the Science Park that is just outside the main building! I urge you to resist the temptation to go out and play around right away, because that can wait for the last!

As you enter the main hall, there is a huge  ‘Foucault Pendulum’ majestically swinging to and fro. At the first look, it might look like just another pendulum swinging, but there is more to this one: it is a wonderful demonstration of rotation of the planet Earth. You have been told all your life that Earth rotates on its own axis, and you know it for a fact, but how many times have you actually felt it! You can make note of the orientation of the pendulum at the beginning of the trip and when you are about to leave 3 or 4 hours later, observe it again, you will see the orientation has changed:

BINGO – the Earth has indeed rotated a tiny bit!

Dr. T. M. Alagiri Swamy Raju, who is the Project Director at the regional science center, for most of the times is available, and never misses a chance to explain about the Foucault pendulum to the visitors. The way he explains, the analogies he makes use of, one can feel his passion for Science shine through his eyes.

In the first floor, there are tens of hundreds of science concepts displayed in most elegant form of exhibits. There are exhibits demonstrating the fundamental science concepts like reflection, sound, electricity, magnetism, electromagnetism, momentum, force, pressure, Bernoulli’s principle, phosphorescence, center of gravity, inertia and even some math concepts like Pythagorean Theorem and probability and much more! There is also a 3D theater, where exciting educational videos are played out. Needless to say, kids do love it!

A lovely way to get away from the textbook descriptions and definitions of the concepts and see them in action.

In another hall, there are exhibits demonstrating how stuffs work, right from as simple as levers and pulleys to more complex things like vehicle engines and rockets. If a kid has always been wondering about how some of the most common things in our day to day life work, he or she doesn’t have to pry up things at home to figure out how they work! All we got to do is take them to this place! They are already put up in ways that we can easily learn from. For example, there is an exhibit demonstrating how the car steering actually turns the wheels. We can steer and check the different parts that are involved to make the wheels turn.

In the ground floor, the textile hall has rich information on the history of textiles, right from the earliest forms and uses to the most modern forms and uses of textiles.  Some of the models of machinery that are used for producing fabrics are also at display. To engage students there are a few interactive quizzes which is both fun and informative.

The second hall, at the ground floor, which I would prefer to call ‘The Hall of Cosmos’, is all about Astronomy and its rich history. The info-graphics displayed are rich sources of information. There are brief notes on Galileo, Kepler, Edwin Hubble, Copernicus and other scientists and their contributions to the field.

The experience inside this hall is nothing short of a ride in the Cosmos!

There are other exhibits that deserve special mentions: the energy ball, the gravity well, lazy coins, reflection well and optical illusions.  Also, there is an inflatable Planetarium, where the night sky comes alive and Mr. Ahilan, Planetarium Engineer, makes sure the time spent inside it is exciting.

If you think, after all this learning, the park set up outside is just to relax, be mistaken, very mistaken! When looked at from a little far away, it looks just like any other park, full of things for kids to play around with, but when you are closer, you find that there is one major difference: there is a science concept behind everything in the park.

At Science park, you learn to play and play to learn!

If you plan to take kids along with you, make sure you have one person who is good at science and can help kids understand the concepts. You can always seek help of the people like Dr. Alagiri, Mr. Ahilan and others in the center, but they might not be around all the time to explain all the stuff. So I advice you take a science educator along with you to make the best use of the visit. More the questions we ask, the more we learn!

Its human nature to fall in love! A visit to this place and falling in love with science becomes inevitable! 

PS: The entry fee in nominal at Rs. 15 for kids and Rs. 25 for adults (inclusive of all the facilities inside, except for the planetarium which would cost an additional Rs. 2 for kids and Rs. 5 for adults. The price are subject to change!). For detailed information, contact Regional Science Center: 0422-2570325