Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Breakthrough Prizes 2014

 The breakthrough prizes for fundamental physics and life sciences for 2014  were announced at a ceremony at the NASA, Hangar One building, at the NASA Ames Research Centre  in Mountain View, California, on December 12, 2013. This was the second function for the Milner fundamental physics prize -the first one was held on March 20th at the   Geneva International conference Centre, where the first nine 2012 awardees, Stephen Hawking, 6 CERN scientists ( for their role in the discovery of the Higgs particle)  and Polyakov were honored.  For the life sciences, this was the first function and hence, besides the 6  2014 breakthrough prizes in life sciences, and the 2014 breakthrough prize in fundamental physics (Michael Green and John Schwarz), the 11 initial  winners of the 2013 life sciences prizes were also honored.

The function was hosted by Kevin Spacey and had several other celebrities  from the American movie and TV industry including Conan O Brien, Glenn Close, Michael Hall, Anna Kendrick, Rob Lowe and Lana Del Rey. More of interest than the U.S. centric performances, (as compared to the Geneva show hosted by Morgan Freeman), were the Internet innovators and entrepreneurs - the charming and baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg  (of the Facebook  fame) and his wife Priscilla Chan,  Sergey Brin ( the Google co-founder) and his wife Anne Wojcicki, Larry Page (Google co-founder) and Jimmy Wales ( co-founder of Wikipedia), and of course, Yuri Milner, the founder of the Fundamental prize.

The format of the function this time, included  a fancy sit-down dinner, catered by Chef Thomas Keller and The French Laundry, for about 5000 invitees. Re the food, as a vegetarian and not a great connoisseur, I will not attempt to describe the food other than saying that it was fancy, but the  menu   should give an idea!

This was different from last time, when the guests had to go round Geneva in a state of semistarvation (refer Sunil Mukhi's blog). The composition of the invitees was also quite different. Last time, there were many scientists from CERN and from other places in Europe,
whereas this time, the invitees were mainly  Silicon valley entrepreneurs, besides the laureates and their families. The aim seems to be fund-raising for fundamental science and who better than silicon valley entrepreneurs to know the value of fundamental research?

This time, the new horizons prize in physics, awarded to promising junior researchers went to Shiraz Minwalla from TIFR, along with two others. These prizes were awarded at a lunch hosted by Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto. With no prior notice, the three awardees were given 2 minutes each to describe their work to a mixed audience including biologists, physicists and their family members.  The sartorial splendor of the scientists had to be seen to be believed, and shocked those used to their normal attire. Here you see Ashoke Sen and Shiraz Minwalla, in their full plumage.
The function ended with the announcement by Milner and Zuckerberg of a new three million dollar breakthrough prize in mathematics, whose details will be announced later.

A personal highlight for me was meeting Lucy Hawking. I am a fan of her children's science books co-authored with her father and came to know that she is finishing a new one on quantum computers very soon.

This blog post is by Sumathi Rao.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Lest we forget
What they were dying for
Lest we forget
What they were killing for
Lest we forget
What  the hell it was for

What do we forget when we remember…

Owen Griffiths

This blog post by Neelima Gupte and  Sumathi Rao.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Mars Orbiter Mission: The Mangalyaan

Right after the Diwali rockets, a real rocket did take off, with a crackerjack payload. The PSLV took off on November 5th  with the Mangalyaan on board. The Mangalyaan, or the Mars craft weighs a compact 500 kilos and reached the last but one stage of its orbit raising manouevures today. There were six orbit raising operations, (including a back up manouevure to compensate for the fact that the fourth orbit raising manoevure did not raise the trajectory sufficiently), with today's operation raising the  orbit to one with an apogee of 192,000 kms and a perigee of 252 km, where it will stay till December 1st, when a final firing will send MOM (as ISRO fondly calls it) into an interplanetary trajectory. The Mangalyaan hopes to enter into a Mars orbit on September 2014, almost at the same time as NASA's MAVEN orbiter, after travelling for nearly 11 months, with a cruise phase of 300 days.

The mission costs Rs 454 crores. Since the earth Mars distance is about 400 million kms, there has been a bit of discussion of how this works out to just over Rs 11 per km, cheaper than auto fares in most Indian cities (especially Chennai). This is actually even less, considering that the Mars Orbiter actually traverses 780 million kms, and also that the satellite costs 153 crores and the rest of the budget has been attributed to ground stations and relay upgrades that will be used for other ISRO projects. Given that the mission is intended to be a technology demonstrator for the design, planning and implementation of an interplanetary mission, this discussion of cost may not even be a relevant discussion. However, the ISRO scientists have had to answer the usual `must we have a Mars craft before there is drinking water in all Indian villages', `what will this mission do that other Mars missions don't' etc questions. They have done an admirable job with their answers. If the mission works well, ISRO hopes to attract contracts for a variety of space related jobs, including the launching of satellites, where they are already considered a reliable agency. As far as the utility of space technology to day to day life is concerned,  the string of satellites that ISRO has launched played a very crucial role in the early warning before the recent cyclone Phailin, due to which the loss of life was minimal in India, unlike in earlier cyclones. As far as the scientific aspects of the mission are concerned, the mission hopes to identify whether the atmosphere of Mars contains methane, as well as to map the Mars terrain. However, the real gains of a mission like this lie in its intangibles, the fillip to science and technology, the capturing of public imagination, the celebration of interplanetary travel. Is this going to be `the little ship that could'? We hope so, good luck, little ship!

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi  Rao.

Update:  MoM's gearing to enter it's MARS orbit, right behind MAVEN
The Mars Orbiter Mission spacecraft's main engine was successfully reignited  for four seconds as a trial at 2.30 pm (IST) before the final firing to get into the red planet's orbit early on Wednesday.(22/09/2014)

Friday, October 4, 2013

Pondicherry Reprise

We wandered to the pleasant town of Pondicherry again for a weekend, making the usual excuse, viz. out of town guests. The itinerary followed the good old routine, viz. leave in the morning, shore temple and Arjuna's penance and a good Mahabalipuram lunch, and trickle down to Pondi by evening. The guests got fascinated by all the Mahabs bric a brac, despite reassuarances that Pondi bric a brac was far better (but of course far more expensive!).

Pondicherry delivered as promised. The French quarter was elegant and well maintained. The ashram was serene and beautiful. The samadhi had a peaceful and meditative atmosphere, and a large collection of worshippers, even in the late evening. The ashram had its beautiful champa trees, now supplemented by a spectacular rock garden. The beach was cool at night, but a couple of sights were disturbing, is every kind of tourism a good thing?

 The next morning was a new experience, the Matrimandir at Auroville, with prior permission acquired due to the enterprise of the visitors and the presence of gracious Pondicherry hosts. The Matrimandir is a beautiful place of meditation, where the contemplative vision of the Mother has been encapsulated by the architectural vision of Roger Angier, in a remarkable piece of modern architecture. The Matrimandir is a squashed Cosmic egg, or to the less philosophical, a golden geodesic dome. The interiors are white marble, impeccably maintained, thanks to watchful guardians, all French on the day we visited. A spiral staircase leads to the central dome, with twelve pillars which represent the verities. The pillars are not structurally necessary, the French construction engineer who was our principal guide told us, but were a part of the Mother's vision. Natural light from a skylight falls on a crystal globe, and goes down to a meditation area below, with another receptacle at the centre of a beautiful marble lotus. The meditatively inclined felt the vibrations of the place (guess whose theta waves would not budge?).  The Matrimandir is encircled by twelve small meditation rooms, and is meant to be surrounded by twelve gardens, of which three are presently developed. There's an old banyan tree outside, and green lawns enveloped by a fledgling forest, a far cry from the sea of red mud that we saw when we visited last. Auroville originates in a dream, a dream of world unity, that seems to be developing slowly but surely, an oasis in the chaos and cacophony of the external world. It is a place to see, at least once!

This blog post by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Piṟanta Nāḷ Vāḻttukkaḷ

Madras, that is Chennai, turned 374 today. In 1639, on this day, the British administrators Francis Day and Andrew Cogan, acquired a stretch of land from the Vijaynagar empire which went on to progress from the villages of Madraspattinam and Channapattinam to become Madras, nowadays known as Chennai. While 374 sounds like a respectable age for a city, strictly speaking Madras is much older than that. The temples of Triplicane, Mylapore and Thiruvanmiyur (the Parthasarathy, and Kapaleeswar and Marundeeswar temples) all date from the 8th century. Fort St. George, which was named in 1640 is a spring chicken in comparison.  Either way, good wishes are in order. So happy birthday, Chennai (that is what the header says, thanks Google translator, and we hope it got it  right). We hope to greet you again next year, when you turn 375, when you will hopefully be in better shape (don't start us off on the topic of the current potholes).

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Pensieve

Aficionados of the Harry Potter series of books will recall the pensieve, the physical receptacle of memories, that sits in Professor Dumbledore's office, with silvery memories darting around on a smoky background, like koi fish in a pond, ready to be plucked out at will, or locked away. However, in our every day unmagical Muggle world, neuroscientists have long grappled with the question of the existence of a physical location of memories, and even more intriguingly with the basis of false memory, viz. the remembrance of incidents that never occurred. In a series of important papers, the most recent of which was published in the 25th July issue of Science, a group of scientists at the RIKEN-MIT Center for Neural Circuit Genetics, have established the existence of networks of neurons that form memory traces (or emgrams) for each experience we have, succeeded in activating them via optical techniques, and also in implanting memory associations of incidents that never occurred.

Early research in neuroscience in the 1940-s suggested that episodic memories were stored in the hippocampus, an area of the temporal lobe of the brain. Electrical stimulation of the hippocampus, undertaken in the treatment of epileptic seizures, succeeded in triggering episodic memories. However, it was not established that the memory traces were stored in specific cells of the brain. To establish this required new techniques, called optogenetic techniques. In a study carried out by Susumu Tonegawa and coworkers at MIT, mouse hippocampal cells were engineered to express the gene for channelrhodopsin, a protein that activates neurons when simulated by light.  They also modified the gene so that channelrhodopsin would be produced whenever the c-fos gene, necessary for memory formation, was turned on. Last year, the researchers conditioned these mice to fear a particular chamber by delivering a mild electric shock (yes, the cells were in live mice. Neuroscience experiments aren't pretty!). As the memory was formed both the c-fos gene and the engineered channelrhodopsin gene was switched on. Thus, the cells encoding the memory (located in an area called the Dentate Gyrus of the hippocampus) were tagged with the light sensitive protein. When the mice were put in a different chamber, they behaved normally. However, when a light pulse was delivered to the hippocampus, stimulating the optically tagged memory cells, the mice froze in fear as the memory of the shock was activated. Thus a direct contact was established between the memory trace and its storage location.

This was remarkable  in itself, but then the researchers went further. They tried to implant false memories in the mices' brains. First, the mice were allowed to explore a chamber, chamber A where no shocks were given. However, their memory cells were labelled with the optically sensitive gene. The next day, the mice were put in chamber B, where a mild shock was delivered, and simultaneously, the cells encoding the memory trace of chamber A were switched on optically. The third day, the mice were put in chamber A, where they froze in fear, even though they had never been shocked in chamber A. A false memory had been implanted (`incepted'). The mice feared chamber A, because when they were given the shock in chamber B, they were reliving the memory of being in chamber A. The mice also retained the fear of chamber B, where the real shock was given. However, they were not as fearful as those mice who had recieved a shock in chamber B, without having a memory of chamber A activated. A similar result had been achieved by Mark Mayford and coworkers at the Scripps Institute in San Diego, last year, using drug induced stimuli.

Now that we have seen the inception of false memories, what next? Steve Ramirez, who is one of the authors of the Science paper, said, `Now that we can reactivate and change the contents of memories in the brain, we can begin asking questions that were once the realm of philosophy. Are there multiple conditions that lead to the formation of false memories? Can false memories for both pleasurable and aversive events be artificially created? What about false memories for more than just contexts — false memories for objects, food or other mice? These are the once seemingly sci-fi questions that can now be experimentally tackled in the lab.'

It is clear that this line of research opens up a whole new area of brain and memory research, and also has implications for legal and ethical issues. Here comes the brave new world! Let's see how it all turns out.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sao Paulo Summer

The Sao Paulo summer was winter, really. The city is in the southern hemisphere after all. After the first half of May in Chennai, the cold was bracing and refreshing (the rain wasn't!).

Paulistinos tell you there is nothing special about their city, it is just another big city. However, there is no doubt that it is a metro city which is a metro city, with big, beautiful buildings, ranging from
old fashioned, graceful buildings to glass clad skyscrapers, parks, theaters, wide avenues and boulevards, modern and efficient transport systems, and well known universities and schools. The city resembles the major cities of western Europe, but contributes its own South American charm in the form of its unique vegetation, cozy neighbourhoods and vibrant street paintings.

Weekends  in Sao Paulo have a relaxed flavour. Neighbourhood markets, street singers (the one on Avenue Paulista dresses often as Elvis) and people dressed as statues, who bow and scrape in exchange for a few coins. The Avenue Paulista is the main avenue in Sao Paulo, which witnesses everything from the Gay parade in May, to the current street protests. The beginnings of both were interesting to see, even for nervous spectators from half a world away. The gay parade kicked off with Elvis clones (maybe inspired by the Sunday singer), and drag queens in ostrich feathers, a positive army of policemen and women and a hovering helicopter.

The protests were more frightening, one dark rainy evening we saw a long procession with huge banners followed by an even longer ghostly procession of policemen (wearing fluoroscent paint and glowing in the dark!). This was topped by the evening when the metro staff went on strike in some lines, and commuters emerging from Paulista metro station after a convoluted and crowded commute saw a posse of riot police mounted on magnificent horses. This was highly appropriate, as the protests were triggered off by an increase in transport tickets by 20 cents! Of course, the protests aren't about 20 cents, any more than Taksim square is about the location of a mall. However, it is hard to say what they are about, and they haven't died out after two weeks (the fare hike has been reversed). The Brazilian economy is booming, as is the most of South America (Yes,  Brazil, Peru and Colombia are on the up and up. Sceptics say this boom is excessively based on commodities, such as oil and minerals, but optimists believe there is a genuine upswing based on manufacturing and services). The annoyance is about the  inequalities, and the general perception that the voice of the people is nowhere heard. President Dilma Roussef today has proposed wide reaching changes including the formation of a constituent assembly, and the spending of oil royalties on the expansion of education and health care. This is a far more conciliatory response than that seen in, for example, Turkey. It is hoped that this translates into a lasting change that addresses the root causes of the simmering anger that lies under the surface of a happy go lucky nation. `Brazil should not just be about football and models', said a friend. If the current unrest sets its path towards less evanescent forms of achievement, it will have succeeded in its purpose.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Cusco Saturday

Here was  a cold blustery Saturday in the historic city of Cusco in Peru.
At 11,000 feet, the air is spare and bracing, but not for everyone. They
keep oxygen at the airport and in every hotel,for those who need it
(people do).The city is in the middle of a valley surrounded by
mountains. As the plane comes down, the feeling of familiarity
intensifies. The city looks and feels exactly like Bhutan, despite being
on the other side of the world.

The streets are narrow and steep, and lined by cobblestones. You need to 
skip out to the high footpath each time an Alto goes by (Suzuki seems to 
have good sales here). If two cross each other, one has to squeeze itself 
flat against the kerb (yes, the streets are two way, but one Alto and one 
llama facing each other is what the two way can handle).The cathedral in 
the main square was rain drenched, but was still thronged with 
worshippers. The clouds and sunshine chased each other, around the little 
park in the middle, and the shops round the square (Inca silver, Inca 
pottery, Inca shawls, alpaca and llama woolens). The school children were
going home, the little girl had a big smile.

The hotel was old and full of antiques and atmosphere. There was a steep 
staircase and a courtyard full of plants, and a terrific view from the 
terrace. The drawing room had a fire-place, the internet and coca leaf tea. 
The staff was truly sweet.  What more could one ask for? It was too short a
trip, one could ask to go again, if Pacha Mama so wills! 

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Dark Matter

This topic is a bit late, but is too important to be left out altogether.The  Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer experiment in the International  space station has seen the excess of positrons at high energies that is supposed to be one of the characteristic signatures of dark matter. Dark matter is supposed to neither emit nor absorb light. Its presence is inferred from its gravitational effects on normal matter. Dark matter is supposed to account for about  85 percent of the total matter in  the universe. The current experiments carried out by the AMS experiment measured the excess of high energy positrons in earth bound cosmic rays, as predicted due to the presence of dark matter.

Well, dark matter is supposed to be made up of some hitherto undetected types of elementary particles, e.g. weakly-interacting massive particles, or WIMP-s, as well as many others. Particles of this type would be produced thermally in the early universe and are predicted by many theoretical extensions to the Standard Model of particle physics. If dark matter is made from such particles, and they encounter their own antiparticle, they may annihilate each other and produce some of the particles we are familiar with, e.g. protons and electrons. Some possible dark matter particles, are expected to be their own antiparticles, (e.g. photons, Z particles and Higgs bosons are examples of particles which are their own antiparticles), they are also expected to be rather heavy. If such dark matter particles encounter each other and annihilate to give lighter weight familiar particles, then these light particles would have high energy. This is a consequence of energy momentum conservation, by which pairs of heavy, slow moving dark matter particles would convert their energy into pairs of light, fast moving, familiar particles, as seen in cosmic rays, which the AMS measures. What the AMS does, is to count the number of electrons and positrons at a certain energy, and measure the fraction of positrons. At high energies, in the absence of dark matter annihilation, the number of electrons is expected to be much larger than the number of positrons. This is because, electrons are common in the universe, and can be easily accelerated to high energies, whereas positrons are produced out of collision processes of electrons, and consequently come out with lower energies than those of the electrons that produced them. However, if the electrons and positrons came out of dark matter particle annihilations, they would be equally energetic. In this case, the fraction of positrons would increase at large energies. The  typical energy of such electron positron pairs would be a little less than  the mass energy of the annihilating dark matter particles, and hence there would be a bump in the energy distribution of the positrons at this energy.

Experts say that the AMS result only confirms what other experiments, like, the measurements made by the Pamela and Fermi satellites, as well as terrestrial experiments. However, it is all to the good that all the experiments are pointing in the same direction. The AMS also has far more accurate measurements, and has narrowed the error bars. The AMS also finds that the distribution of positrons is isotropic, which was not quite expected from astronomical sources. All said and done, there are exciting days ahead in this direction. As for dark energy, may be some other day.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

For a more technical description of dark matter, and all the other experiments, see  this blog.


Two positrons walked into a bar.  `I'm much higher than you on the GeV scale' , bragged the high energy positron.  `And how did you do it' said the low energy positron, wistfully.  `By dark and annihilatory deeds', said the  high energy positron.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Land of Kings 2

Last month saw another excursion to Rajasthan, this time to Jaipur. Jaipur, of course, is a big city, the capital of Rajasthan, but it still manages to retain some of the appeal that small towns have, especially in the outskirts. The skyline is lowlying, the roads are wide, and there is a sense of space on the edge of the desert.

This was a work visit, to the LNMIIT (now headed by an old colleague from IIT Madras), which is blessed with a very well developed campus, and impressive architecture, especially that of the main building, which is inspired by the Jantar Mantar, and picks up the local flavour in the local sandstone. However, we managed to squeeze in a visit to the old fort at Amer, as well as to see the Sisodia Rani Bagh, missed on earlier visits.

Amer fort was earlier a small settlement of the tribe of Meenas, dedicated to the goddess Amba. This was taken over by the Raja Man Singh, who camped there one night, and on being told (if the sound and light show is to be believed) that the place belonged to the Meena tribe, laughed and said, `it used to belong to them', and promptly took it over. A prominent feature of the fort is the temple of Sila Devi, who it is said, appeared to Raja Man Singh in a dream, and agreed to take up residence at his fort. The Devi instructed the king to lead the way to the place where he wanted to install her, and that she would follow, but he should not look behind. The king did lead the way, but at some point turned round to look at the goddess, who froze on the spot. Thus, the temple to the Devi got constructed at the entrance of the fort, and the image of the Devi (Mahishasur Mardini) turns around.(Less fanciful versions of the story can be found in Wikipaedia).

The fort boasts of the most beautiful marble inlays and jaalis, as does the temple, second to none in India, including the Taj Mahal. The fort overlooks the Maota lake, and a beautiful garden, with beds of
crocuses whose stamens yield the precious saffron. 

The structure follows the traditional pattern, being built around courtyards, with halls of audience, halls of recreation, pleasure garden, the zenana, and a sheesh mahal.

 The sound and light in the evening, lights up the huge fort in a very impressive fashion. The stories that it tells, however, are not as impressive. The Kachhvahas of Amer, Raja Man Singh and his descendants, were always courtiers of the Mughals, and the stories of those who fought with the Mughals, like Rana Pratap, and Shivaji are more interesting! Still, the spectacle is not one to be missed.

A  highlight of the visit  was a quick, unexpected  glimpse of the one of the current owners of Amer, Princess Diya, the step-granddaughter of Maharani Gayatri Devi of Jaipur,  a chip of the old block, chiffon, dark glasses and all. Here's  hoping for another visit, maybe to another place in Rajasthan, so that there can be a Land of Kings 3 post.

This blog post by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Rahul Basu (04/03/1956-05/03/2011)

Because he lived, next door a child
To see him coming often smiled,
And thought him her devoted friend
Who gladly gave her coins to spend.

Because he lived, a neighbor knew
A clump of tall delphiniums blue
And oriental poppies red
He'd given for a flower bed.

 Because he lived, a man in need
Was grateful for a kindly deed
And ever after tried to be
As thoughtful and as fine as he.

       Because he lived, ne'er great or proud
       Or known to all the motley crowd,
       A few there were whose tents were pitched
       Near his, who found their lives enriched.

 `Because he lived',  Edgar A. Guest.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Kumbh Mela 2013 - A view from Jhusi

The Kumbh Mela, India's largest religious festival, is on right now. This year is supposed to be the Purnakumbh, which occurs only every 12 years. The festival is held at the Sangam (the confluence of the rivers Ganga and Jamuna) at Allahabad, as it happens, right next to the Harishchandra Research Institute, Jhusi, Allahabad where I  work. So here is a ringside view.

This is the time when the world converges on the moderately sized city of Allahabad, to have its dip in the Ganga on the designated snanam (bathing)  days (of which yesterday was one). A complete tented city comes up on the banks of the river, all ready to accommodate pilgrims, sadhus, halwais, tourists, hawkers, gawkers and what have you-s (that's us!). The pre-Kumbh preparations of the city had started over a year ago with the construction of new over-bridges, laying of new sewer lines, repairing of roads, etc. Given the  pace of work, it was hard to believe in October, that things would  actually get completed by the time the Kumbh began. However,  the great Indian `jugaad'  worked out finally and by January, everything was in place.  We, Jhusi residents,  saw the new Kumbh city develop in just a matter of weeks, in  an amazing and efficient fashion, complete with  lights,  water, the sewage, public toilets, sectors and roads, and a large number of pontoon bridges  (around twenty) across the Ganga, over areas which had been submerged just a few months ago.  We had seen this happen in 2001, however it was still awe-inspiring, especially given the functioning of the city  in  the remaining eleven years!

The tent city has tents  of all kinds, from  simple staying arrangements for the ordinary folk, to quite comfortable accommodation for the well off, with attached bathrooms, hot water, western style toilets, and  plants growing all around, transplanted from elsewhere! Besides these residential tents, there are the `pravachan' or discourse tents, which compete with one another in having fancy `architecture', lighting arrangements, like pooja pandals, elsewhere.

The first of the shahi snans was on Makar Sankaranti, January 14.  This year's bitter winter  kept many people away from the icy dip in January, but February saw an increase in numbers. Until then, the crowds were moving towards the sangam area and taking their dips in an orderly and well-behaved fashion. There were big tour groups from different Indian states, and a sprinkling of foreigners. Some of the groups  had designated gurus and would go to listen to their particular gurus, others would try out different tents. There were `superstar'  gurus with a huge number of followers whose tents were overflowing. There were those who were preaching to just a few faithful followers. There were young gurus out to make their names. Academic types thought  it was like a  `March meeting' on the subject of religion, with many parallel sessions!

The big day was  February 10th or Mauni Amavasya day, the most auspicious day, of the Kumbh, when more than 30 million people were expected in a small area of a   city which has  a normal population of less than 10 lakhs!  The day did not disappoint us. In the earlier days of the Kumbh, the `HRI akhada' as we called ourselves often went for walks in the mela as a group, to see the sights,  and eat hot jalebis!

This became impossible after February 9th.  The actual sangam area was closed to the general public from about midnight to about ten or eleven in the morning, because Mauni Amavasya is also the day of the second shahi snan of the ascetics, and the main bathing area was reserved for them. This did not deter the continuous procession of people going towards and away from the sangam with the one-point agenda of having a dip in the sangam and cleansing their sins!

Although most people managed to walk for miles, have a successful dip and find their way back, there were inevitable replays of the `lost in the Kumbh Mela' scenarios, beloved of Hindi movies.  Compounding the problem was the fact that many people spoke no language, other than their native tongue, and not a word of the local Hindi.  A young man from Andhra who spoke only  Telugu had lost his wife and child. One of our Telugu speaking friends helped him and took him to the `lost and found' centre (which has been functioning for decades with the help of volunteers)  in the Mela where they were allowing people to speak over the loudspeaker themselves in their own language. His story fortunately had a happy ending when he got re-united with his wife and child after two frantic days, in Varanasi, where his wife had also managed to independently reach the Andhra Samaj.
It was really nice to see that  the police were trying to be helpful, under quite difficult circumstances. I especially remember the commando lady, who after putting in an uncountable  number of hours on duty, went up to the pujaris to give her offering, before wending her weary way home.

The stampede at the railway station on the Mauni Amawasya day was a real tragedy and an unforgivable lapse on the part of the administration, as was the fire on the Basant Panchami day. Despite these serious problems,  before criticizing anyone, I would like to say that the mela administration, the police and the security people, the safai karmacharis who have kept the area clean and the local Allahabad administration have done an extra-ordinary job, extra-ordinarily well. The scale of the operation which has been carried out has to be kept in mind, before indulging in blame games, and what has gone wrong cannot take away all that has gone right.  Here's wishing for a perfect Kumbh, the next time round (in 2025)!

This blog post is by Sumathi Rao.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Another hanging

This Saturday saw another hanging, again in a terrorist related case. Afzal Guru, who was convicted as a conspirator in the 2001 attack on the Indian parliament, was hanged this Saturday in Tihar jail, again under the utmost security and secrecy. While this case looks superficially similar to Ajmal Kasab's, there are important and crucial differences. Guru was not one of the perpetrators of the actual attack. His crime was to provide shelter for the actual attackers, and to be involved in their financial transactions. Locking him away for his natural life could well have been been adequate punishment under the circumstances. Some of the evidence against Guru was circumstantial, and some under his own confession. Conspirators whose contribution to the assasination of Mahatma Gandhi was similar, were not awarded the death penalty. Senior jurists and human rights activists have been perturbed by this execution.  Rather than discourage terrorism, this hanging may provide support to the agenda of hate that fuels terrorism. Yes, the state should be strong, but some times strength lies in mercy. We hope the strength of mercy will be allowed to prevail in future cases.

This blog post  is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao

Monday, January 14, 2013

The IPA Rahul Basu Memorial Award

It gives us great pleasure to announce the names of the winners of the first IPA Rahul Basu Memorial award for the best thesis in High Energy Physics. The winners of the award are Dr. Lokesh Kumar (Ph.D. from Punjab University, presently at Brookhaven National Lab) for his thesis entitled "Identified particle production, fluctuations and correlations studies in heavy-ion collisions at RHIC energies" and Dr. Diptimoy Ghosh (Ph.D. from TIFR, presently at the University of Rome "La Sapienza") for his thesis entitled “Looking for physics beyond the Standard Model through flavour transitions.”

The quality of the nominated theses was very high, and the final choice was very difficult. Therefore it was decided to award two honourable mentions as well. These are Dr. Debasish Banerjee (Ph.D. from TIFR, presently at the University of Bern), for the thesis "Nonperturbative studies of strongly interacting matter at finite temperature and density", and Dr. Ketan Patel (Ph.D. from PRL/Mohanlal Sukhadia University, presently at TIFR) for the thesis, "Beyond the Standard Model Physics: Grand Unification and otherwise". The prizes will be presented on 17th January at the XX DAE-BRNS High Energy Physics Symposium which is being held at the Department of Physics, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan. We hope to share further details of the award ceremony with you next week.


The award ceremony took place in the Physics department at Santiniketan on 17th January. The ceremony started with two short talks by Sunil Mukhi and Rohini Godbole on Rahul Basu, his personality and work. This was followed by a short interaction with the award winners Lokesh Kumar in the U.S. and Diptimoy Ghosh in Italy on Skype. The award winners had described their work in two excellent recorded talks.

Lokesh Kumar's work was related to constructing the phase diagram for QCD. For the construction of this phase diagram  a beam energy scan (BES) program was proposed at the Relativistic Heavy-Ion Collider Facility, BNL, USA in 2008. The experiment and Collider was asked to demonstrate the feasibility of RHIC carrying out this program below the injection energies. A test run was provided at center of mass energies of 9.2 GeV per nucleon for Au+Au collisions. A major part of Dr. Lokesh Kumar's thesis work was related to demonstrating that STAR experiment could  successfully carry out the BES program. With only 4000 events available in the short test run, he was able to provide convincing physics results which played a major role having approving the program approved at RHIC from the year 2010. The success of the analysis of the 9.2 GeV Au+Au collision data establishes the foundation for the subsequent beam energy program, one of whose primary objective is to locate the possible critical point in the QCD phase diagram. This was the importance of Lokesh Kumar's thesis.

The other awardee, Diptimoy Ghosh worked on flavour physics for his Ph.D.  An interesting aspect of his thesis is that it looks for signatures of processes beyond the standard model.  He played a major role in  identifying the new physics required for explaining the  large enhancement seen  in the [Bs to tau tau] decay rate. He had also worked on constraining specific new physics models using low-energy flavour-physics data in addition to the high-energy collider data from ATLAS and CMS, pointing out implications of a variety of interesting signals involving the anomalous decay rates, the top quark forward-backward asymmetry, searches  for Higgs and supersymmetric particles  in various channels, etc.

The talks were received very well. The awardees came back at the end of talks for a very lively question answer session.  We hope this award will inspire work of equally high quality in the coming years, and wish the awardees every success in their future careers.

This blog post is by Neelima Gupte and Sumathi Rao.