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!
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