Interview: LIGO's Role in Founding a New Ethic Among Indian Scientists

Tarun Souradeep on the LIGO India collaboration, and whether India can take a leading role in science and scientific discovery in the years to come.

Tarun Souradeep. Credit: Author provided (LIGO)

Tarun Souradeep. Credit: Author provided

The detection of gravitational waves and what it means for science and technology has caused tremendous excitement around the world. Significantly enough, 37 Indian scientists have been named as beneficiaries of the Special Breakthrough Prize, among around a thousand working on gravitational waves. This includes Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne and Rainer Weiss, the three conceivers of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatories (LIGO), which detected the waves.

Tarun Souradeep is Senior Professor at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) and spokesperson for the IndIGO Consortium, which aspires to building a LIGO in India. He is also a project coordinator at IUCAA for LIGO India. He spoke to Scharada Dubey on the collaboration, and whether India can take a leading role in science and scientific discovery in the years to come.

The IndIGO Consortium seems to be more about a shared vision than any formal institutional grouping. Is this how you would yourself describe it?

Yes, the shared vision is the distinguishing feature of this consortium and our working to set up LIGO India. In fact, it began as an informal group of people from the very first exercise in 2009, when we discussed the need to set up LIGO India here at a meeting at IUCAA, and decided to form a consortium for the purpose. Putting together such a collaborative effort has been the most satisfying aspect for me. This is because since I completed my PhD back in 1995, what I realised is that big science requires collaboration. The IndIGO Consortium represents a unique form of collaboration across many institutions to successfully explore an area of emerging science and plan for what is to be done in the field in India.   

Do the consortium and LIGO India represent a chance for a completely new direction and edge to Indian science?

They definitely represent a preparation for the coming years that will stand us in good stead if we want to be on the frontiers of science. I learnt this from my own experience. When I returned to lead a group in cosmic microwave background [research] at IUCAA in 2000, it was considered a cutting-edge field. At the time, I used to be often asked, ‘Why doesn’t India have experiments in this area of cosmology?’, and I tried explaining to such questioners that frontier experiments and required allied facilities cannot come up overnight. They have to be planned for, and worked for, many years in advance. During my PhD, I still had not understood  the full import of this, perhaps because of my youth. For instance, I did see the [Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope] come up. Prof. Govind Swarup, the key scientist behind its design and installation, was right across the road from us at IUCAA. I would have benefited immensely by taking a closer interest in the project, particularly because of my engineering background (he is a B. Tech from IIT Kanpur) and yet, I did not then get involved. I had not yet understood how these are the big projects that are needed to make science grow in the country.

Later, as I worked more in my chosen field – for instance, I worked on data from the [Cosmic Background Explorer, Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe and the Planck space telescope], which were path-breaking satellite missions to investigate the cosmic microwave background, and realised that I was taking someone else’s data and results for my work and that an ownership of the experiment was important to make more impact and recognition of the nation. That made me more aware of the need to have ownership of the experiments and data for any significant work.

Our superior attitude of knowing-it-all confines knowledge to certain privileged groups – something which the colonial powers did their best to reinforce.

By the time I arranged an eight-week programme on cosmology and CMB at IUCAA in 2003, with 50 senior scientists from all over the world conducting schools and workshops, I realised that we had been left far behind by the advancements in the field of cosmic microwave background research. I had organised the programme to draw in more experimenters and researchers, but it also helped me meet other people working in the field. In fact, it was Clem Pryke, a scientist who had been part of the [Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarisation] experiment team at the South Pole who brought home to me a bitter truth. He said that whatever you initiate now in CMB experiments in India, it will be impossible to be on par with what has already happened, much less get ahead. This made me feel very keenly that the Indian scientific community needs to plan well ahead of time in order to do work of any significance and importance.

What are some of the factors that seem to be acting as hurdles to such work?

There are of course many factors to consider, but I feel there is also the culture that has developed around science that needs to be addressed. We have unfortunately retained the old tradition of being very individualistic scientists. It took me some time to understand that awards are not the end of scientific efforts. Awards are given for individual achievement, but what we need are more efforts to build a body of work that paves the way for hundreds of others to follow. For instance, by such  standards, Govind Swarup with the GMRT should be a super-star! But the Indian scientific community is perhaps still loath to give due credit to such efforts.

Invariably, many are content with getting names published in prestigious journals, and career scientists also frown on diverging from a chosen field into an experiment like LIGO India. I still have people ask me why I have spent so many years on this when I had such a good career in my own field. In their eyes, I am only one among 1,000 scientists who have made a breakthrough in a new field. In the past, we have had many Indians researchers working on the [Large Hadron Collider] also. Yet, few science writers and researchers can name them. But I look at it in another way – when has it ever happened that in a discovery most likely to get the Nobel Prize, you have a 5% presence of Indian scientists representing many different institutions? In fact, even the 37 of us who are part of the Breakthrough Prize are not getting it as a kind of consolation, but because we have made real contributions that are being recognised. For me, this represents an important shift away from the individual to the community.

Is it only the culture around science that is this way? Perhaps it reflects a broader societal emphasis on individual glory…

Yes, of course society’s values that place more emphasis on individual achievement affect work in science as well. Our superior attitude of knowing-it-all from our ancient past is also a hurdle – this confines knowledge to certain privileged groups, something which the colonial powers did their best to reinforce. In fact, what I understood from my own search across the country for LIGO India sites was this: if India was indeed at the top of the world and at the peak of science and engineering, then we need to tap into the same values that produced those results. If you see the step-wells constructed eight centuries ago, for instance, they are marvels of construction and engineering. Yet today, we are sweating at the thought of constructing an exquisitely flat foundation of four km length [for LIGO]! Surely, one of the most important factors for us to have been on top of science and engineering in the past was hard work. You cannot be on top or stay on top without working extremely hard.

Tell us something about the journey to LIGO India. Where has the project reached today?

In 2008, Rana Adhikari from Caltech was here at IUCAA when we got talking and thought, ‘Why don’t we initiate experimental effort in gravitational waves detection?’ It was already obvious then that it was going to be the next big thing in science. In IUCAA, we already had Sanjeev Dhurandhar and his team working on extracting science from the detector, but what we needed now was to find a way to take it to the bigger level of building an experimental facility. So from our initial talks, we knew that the first thing was to bring in other scientists interested in the field and build a consortium.

Also read: Interview – Sanjeev Dhurandhar, a Doyen of Gravitational Wave Physics in India

We came together out of a sheer love for this, and began looking at partnerships abroad, with LIGO Australia, for instance. I had just then won the DST Swarnajayanti fellowship and had some independent research money, so I began travelling and speaking to others in the field. The earliest I remember is that we went to an international meeting in China (Galileo-Xu meeting, 2009) that had all the leading research groups in gravitational waves. I was ready to be laughed off, but the gravitational wave scientific community welcomed and appreciated our nascent initiative. Encouraged, we consolidated the IndIGO consortium, set up a few months earlier, and started plans for a proposal to have a significant Indian participation in LIGO Australia.

We have unfortunately retained the old tradition of being very individualistic scientists.

When I got the first feelers from US regarding a LIGO India possibility in mid-2011, the first person I spoke to was Dr. Anil Kakodkar, who was the chairperson of the governing board of IUCAA. He was vastly supportive. ‘This is something you have to do,’ he said. So IUCAA came on board, and Prof. Ajit Kembhavi, then director of IUCAA, became a strong advocate of LIGO India. We also got immense support from Prof. Jayant Narlikar. Because we had already spent a couple years in the preparations for LIGO Australia, we could respond fast with a LIGO India proposal to be put before the mega-science committee of the Planning Commission.

We received valuable support in that period from Dr. Srikumar Banerjee, who had succeeded Dr. Kakodkar at the Atomic Energy Commission and also chaired the mega-science subcommittee of the Planning Commission. We submitted the proposal in late 2011, and were able to have it recommended by the Planning Commission in early 2012. In fact, in early 2014, the then PM Manmohan Singh even announced the possible plan to have a gravitational wave observatory at the Science Congress in Jammu. However, by the time elections came around in 2014, the file had still not reached the PMO, so we had to have it reviewed afresh under the new government. By this time, we had completed all site studies, and by October-November 2015, the PMO began to feel assured that things were in place. In fact, approval by the union cabinet was supposed to come just before the announcement of the detection of gravitational waves, but it got held back by a week and came just after. The project is now fully approved and all studies have been completed on the shortlisted site. LIGO Laboratories [in the US] are our partners on this project and are jointly reviewing the progress.

In terms of the significant developmental phase work for LIGO India, are moving well at all the three lead institutes: Institute for Plasma Research, Gandhinagar; IUCAA, Pune; and the Raja Ramanna Centre for Advanced Technology, Indore. The infrastructure design and vacuum drawings are ready, site identification nearly final, and so on. At a recent review meeting by the DAE secretary, the preparatory work was appreciated. For me, personally, this felt good because I had spent the whole of  2012 travelling three times a month to many, many sites across the country. It was the constant support from IUCAA, and the help we got from senior consultants like Sharad Gaonkar, who had retired as the deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India and still had amazing field instincts that stood us in good stead.

So what is the timeline for completion of the project?

We expect to be taking science data from the completed LIGO India project in eight years’ time, which is within international standards for a project of this scale. We have received a lot of support. Initially, I think we were able to move ahead quickly because we were just a bunch of enthusiastic people without too many opinions and formal organisational structures holding us back. Once the PM was convinced about this, the PMO has also been most attentive and things have been moving at a good pace.

The creation of the consortium represents a new ethic of communication and collaboration among scientists.

IUCAA has certainly been in the thick of many important developments in large experiments.

Yes, that it certainly has. In fact, my colleagues have worked closely with ISRO on two important projects. Prof. Shyam Tandon built one of the instruments placed in ASTROSAT, India’s first dedicated multi-wavelength space observatory. My colleague, Prof. Dipankar Bhattacharya, and his team also work extensively on this. IUCAA is also involved in the Aditya L1 project that will become operational in 2018-2019. It is a solar project. L1 refers to a stable point between Earth and the Sun, roughly 1.5 million km from earth. A satellite placed there will orbit the Sun at the same speed as Earth, and my colleagues Profs. Tripathi and Ramprakash are working to build an instrument to be placed on this satellite.

What are the future implications of IndIGO and LIGO India for India’s place in global science?

They are very positive. The creation of the consortium represents a new ethic of communication and collaboration among scientists. We have understood that there’s enough for everyone to do. We have to stick together, we do not fight each other. Also we are reaping the benefits of working within a very vibrant international collaboration and have had a great, supportive partner in the LIGO Laboratories. We have been sending students to US labs and many of them are likely to come back with ideas on what to do next.

This month, we had a workshop on LIGO India, called the ‘Road Ahead’, with experts from Australia, the US, Europe and Japan, and IIT, IISER and IUCAA scientists. The signals are very positive for us to soon build data and science communities of our own with an added feeling of ownership of the experiment. Now it is up to the system and society to respond adequately to this excitement among us scientists. Nothing will make me happier than growing a strong community and putting India in a position of leadership in a frontier area of science in the coming years.

Featured image: Statues at the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics. Credit: IUCAA