Sunday, August 19, 2012

Science neatly strung together -

Dr Ashoke Sen, a string theory physicist who teaches at Harish Chandra Research Institute (HCRI) at Allahabad, is among nine distinguished scientists from around the world, and the only Indian, to be awarded the first Yuri Milner Fundamental Physics prize. The acclaimed physicist is considered as one of the foremost experts on String Theory. He tells us more about his scientific achievement and what winning $3 million, the highest prize money for a scientific award, means

Q: What first interested you in Physics?

A: There are probably various factors. My father was a physics teacher. Also when I was growing up in Kolkata, Physics was the most popular subject. For example five of my batch mates in Presidency College were among the top 10 rank holders in the board exam.

Q: Why did you decide to go into research?

A: Since my school days I wanted to be  a scientist, although I had no  idea of what science or research meant. As I went to college and then to IIT (for my MSc) I came to know more and more about science, and my wish to become  a scientist was further strengthened.

Q:  Where does your research go from here?

A: I plan to continue working on various aspects of string theory in the coming years.  Although during the last 30 years we have learned a lot about this theory, there is still a lot to be learned.

Q: What is the string theory?

A: String theory is an attempt to understand the most basic constituents of all matter and the forces which operate between them. It is based on the idea that elementary constituents of matter are not point particles, but one dimensional objects i.e. strings. This theory automatically combines quantum mechanics, and general relativity - Einstein’s theory of gravity. It also has the potential for explaining the other known forces of nature - strong, weak and electromagnetic forces.

Q: The award specifically recognises your work in strong-weak coupling duality. Tell us more about it.

A: This refers to certain symmetries of string theory which are hidden and not easy to discover. In the mid 90s, I devised specific strategies for discovering and finding evidence for such symmetries. This was later used by others to discover many other duality symmetries, and eventually led to the  realization that the five consistent string theories known at that time are all related by various duality transformations, and hence different limits of a single underlying theory.

Q: How does string theory affect our daily lives?

A: At present string theory is a purely theoretical attempt to understand how nature works and has no effect on our daily lives. However, as with any scientific development, it is hard to predict how it might affect our lives 100 years from now.

Q: Since string theory has come into focus, has there been much rivalry among scientists in the field?

A: There are a large number of excellent people working in this field and so there is a great deal of friendly competition. It is hard to quantify the pace of movement in the subject, but there certainly has been a great deal of progress in the subject since its birth in the late 1960s.

Q: What significance does the Yuri Milner Award hold to science as a subject in India?

A: In India, parents often discourage their children to go into science even if they are interested since it is not a lucrative profession. The result is that many young students who are good and want to get into the field, end up having to study engineering or other subjects. This prize may change this attitude by creating more awareness about science among people.

Q: What do you think of research facilities available for theoretical physicists like you in India?

A: In theoretical physics one can, in principle, work from any place as long as one has a computer and internet connection. Also at present, India has many excellent people working in string theory. So I think that the facilities and the research environment available in India are more than adequate to carry out research.

Q: You are probably the richest scientist in India now. Any plans with your winnings?

A: I have not finalised my plans, but I do want to use a significant fraction of the money towards promoting education in India at various levels.

Q: Are you religious at all?

A: No, I am not religious.

Q: What was your first reaction when the prize was announced?

A: I was, of course, happy but also surprised since I had not heard of this prize before. But then I came to know that this is the first time the prize is being given.

Q: How does the discovery of Higgs Boson affect your work?

A: The discovery of the Higgs boson does not directly affect string theory. However, all (or most) of the particle physicists, including string theorists, have been working under the assumption that the Higgs boson will be found. The reason for this confidence was that this was needed for the mathematical consistency of the standard model of particle physics. Thus what the discovery of the Higgs boson illustrates is the power of logic based on mathematical consistency; even though the Higgs particle remained undiscovered for about 50 years after its prediction, people were confident that it will eventually be found.

To this I should add that while string theory naturally combines gravity with quantum mechanics, one of its goals is to also explain the theory of other forces and other matter. For this one needs to establish that for the kind of energies which the present accelerators can produce, string theory can be approximated by the standard model of particle physics. There are strong indications that this might be possible, but this has not been proven. This is at present one of the most active areas of research in string theory (and is commonly described as string phenomenology). If successful, this program will automatically explain the origin of the Higgs boson in string theory.

Q: How come you have chosen to be in India, when you could well be at Princeton or Caltech or Cambridge? Do you have a feeling of loyalty for India?

A: In theoretical physics one can in principle work from any place as long as one has a computer and internet connection. Also there is now an active research group at HRI. So I do not find any disadvantage of being at HRI compared to any other place in India.

Q: The philosophy behind the award is to encourage scientists whose work may not be verified by experiments yet. It is radically different from the Nobel’s empirical emphasis. How do you interpret this?

A: As far as I know this award is not limited to only those whose work may not be verified by experiments yet. In particular even winners of Nobel prize are eligible. So in that sense it has a broader scope. On the other hand this award is only for topics related to fundamental physics while Nobel prize is also given for other aspects of physics. In this sense the two prizes are different.

Q: How successful have Indian scientists been in contributing to scientific advancements?

A: I do not know about other fields, but in our area (string theory) Indian contribution has been extremely significant. There are many people working in different parts of India who are widely recognized as leaders in the field. As far as I can see, there are two main reasons. First in this subject one does not require much infrastructure; a computer, good internet connection and some travel money to visit other places and invite others to visit is sufficient. The second reason, perhaps not unrelated to the first, is that during the last 30 years many outstanding researchers in this area have returned to India from  abroad.

Q: What should be the role of higher education in encouraging research in basic and fundamental science in India ? How can our colleges and universities match  global standards?

A: Education at all levels form the basis of research. We certainly need to equip our universities with first class facilities and people for improving the quality of education. In an ideal situation, most of the research in the country should be carried out in the universities rather than the research institutes. But for this, it is essential that the teaching and administrative load at the universities be kept at a sufficiently low level so as to allow people to spend a large fraction of their time towards research. If we hire excellent people at the universities and then load them with so much teaching and administrative responsibilities, they have little time left for research, becoming completely counterproductive.

Q: How important is international collaboration for cutting edge research in India?

A: Collaborations are certainly important but in theoretical subjects much of it happens at an informal level without any formal partnership between institutes. All one needs is some travel money and regular conferences and workshops where scientists can meet and exchange ideas.

Q: According to the award’s website, this year’s winners will form the next selection committee. How do you feel about being given the opportunity to select/award talent in fundamental Physics?

A: This is certainly a great honour but is also a lot of responsibility.

Q: You mentioned in India funding has improved tremendously. How so?

A: I am not sure how it has improved but I can certainly see the effect. For example few years ago inviting somebody from another institute in India for a seminar was very difficult since we could not pay airfare. Now that has become possible. Also what I have heard from my colleagues who are more familiar with the funding situation is that any reasonable project proposal (except for very expensive ones) have a very high chance of getting approved. This was not the case few years ago.

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