Eminent nuclear physicist visits from India on exchange lecture tour involving IOP

26 October 2016

The excitement of doing basic research, the discovery of quark–gluon plasma and the ground-breaking work of female scientists are all tackled by world-renowned nuclear physicist Dr Dinesh Srivastava in this year’s Homi Bhabha lectures.

Eminent nuclear physicist visits from India on exchange lecture tour involving IOP

The Homi Bhabha Visiting Lecture series is part of an exchange lectureship scheme between the IOP and the Indian Physics Association. The scheme involves an eminent physicist from India giving lectures in the UK and Ireland, and an eminent physicist from the UK or Ireland giving lectures in India (which are known as the Cockcroft Walton lectures) in alternate years.

Srivastava, who is currently the Department of Atomic Energy Raja Ramanna Fellow and who until June this year was director of the Variable Energy Cyclotron Centre in Kolkata, arrived in the UK on 10 October. He has already given lectures at the University of Surrey and the University of Birmingham. Before his final lecture at the University of Edinburgh, the IOP asked him about himself, the tour, and physics in India.

Have you spent much time in the UK before, or visited physics facilities here?

I last came to the UK in August 1985. At that time I visited the University of Oxford for a few days and then attended a conference at Chester College.

From the conference, I visited the Daresbury Nuclear Research Laboratory, which was still operating a Heavy Ion Accelerator and which has since been unfortunately shut down. I had seen it then and was dismayed at the decision that was in the air that it was going to be shut down. I still believe that it was a grievous loss to nuclear physics research.

How has the lecture tour been so far? Has it been hectic or fairly relaxed, and has there been a good response from the audiences?

I have already covered two-thirds of the tour. I have enjoyed it immensely. I think the response from the students has been good. At Birmingham, I gave a talk on a more specialised topic on which people are working here and we have a good collaboration via the ALICE experiment at CERN with them. So the response was definitely more extended. I have also used this opportunity to learn more of what is being done here and to tell more of what we are working on, and also explored possibilities of further collaboration and exchange of students and utilising already existing programmes like the Newton Fellowships of the Royal Society.

The stay is relaxed and has given me an opportunity to visit some historic places in London and elsewhere, which is very satisfying.

At what level have you pitched your lectures i.e. could they be understood by an undergraduate physics student, or have you tailored them for PhD level, or above?

Eminent nuclear physicist visits from India on exchange lecture tour involving IOP

The lecture at Surrey on “Why should you do basic research?” was pitched at undergraduate level. I was surprised to find many students from different disciplines and especially from somewhat disadvantaged countries there, as well as persons from the general public. I enjoyed talking to them and I must say that they looked happy.

The lecture at Birmingham was pitched at undergraduate level and also described some recent results of experiments. I plan to do the same at Edinburgh.

Have you given essentially the same lecture at each place, or have you varied it according to the audience?

The lectures at the three places are different, but there is a larger overlap in content though not of style at Birmingham and Edinburgh, where I talked about “The Discovery of Quark–gluon Plasma”.

What do you consider to be the most important or fascinating part of the lectures, or what was the key idea that you wanted to get across?

Eminent nuclear physicist visits from India on exchange lecture tour involving IOP

In the first lecture I wanted to convey to the listeners that curiosity is the driving engine for all growth and changes in the world. I wanted them to know the excitement of doing basic research – be it in physics, chemistry, mathematics, medicine, archaeology, philology – and what changes it has brought to the world. I also wanted them to know that basic research brings the people of the world closer.

There is one other aspect which I strongly emphasised in my first lecture (at Surrey): how women scientists have made invaluable contributions to mathematics, physics, chemistry, medicine and other subjects against all possible odds and in the face of harassment by society.

In the other two lectures I want them to know that we are now routinely generating quark–gluon plasma, the matter that filled the entire universe a few microseconds after the Big Bang and how experiments and theory are helping us to understand its properties. And what we are going to look for in coming years.

What do you consider to be the most exciting challenges ahead in nuclear physics?

Experimental nuclear physics is going in three exceedingly interesting directions – radioactive ion beams, quark–gluon plasma at high temperatures and quark–gluon plasma at high baryonic densities. In theory now it is becoming possible to calculate nuclear properties from ab-initio calculations. These are heady times for nuclear physics, but often it does not get the same support – or rather the same vocal and financial support – as other branches. We also need to employ a much larger number of our nuclear physics PhDs in labs and universities. They do not seem to be getting good support.

Have you been involved much in physics outreach to general audiences, in India or elsewhere?

I have participated extensively in outreach in India. I am one of the “mentors” in the INSPIRE programme of the Department of Science and Technology of the government of India, lecturing extensively to high-school, undergraduate and graduate students, across India and especially in remote places, on nuclear physics, nuclear energy, nuclear radiation and its uses, basic research, quark–gluon plasma, etc.

I did give some of these lectures in Canada and more extensively in South Africa. I may do it again in South Africa, if they are able to find travel-support for me.

You have travelled widely and undertaken research in several countries, particularly the US and Germany. How important do you think it is for those involved in research to gain experience in other countries?

I consider that its importance cannot be over-emphasised. First of all, science is a universal subject. Secondly, people of different cultures bring in different outlooks, which helps to find the best approach. Then, living away from your comfort-zone builds your abilities.

Do you see the future of physics research in India as being a healthy one?

I see good support for research and higher education in India. However, I have been pleading to strongly strengthen teaching – especially of science subjects – with the help of actual experiments that the students must already do at primary school level. Unfortunately that is seriously lacking in India due to a severe paucity of funds.

However, I am optimistic that things will change for the better, as they must if we want to play an important role in the community of nations.

Do you think there is scope for increased collaboration between physicists in the UK and India, particularly at a time when the UK is concerned to strengthen its international links?

There is enormous scope for this. And both of us, we and my colleagues in UK, are suffering from lack of enough support for exchange visits/extended visits and enough post-doctoral and middle-level visits and conference visits. This should improve, but it is not improving.

In a previous interview you mentioned that you grew up in one of the 200 poorest villages in India. How can (or how does) the physics community in India contribute to closing the gap between rich and poor?

This is a very difficult question. With the advent of information technology people have become very aware of the differences between India and the West. They have also become very restless and want quick solutions to their travails. And there lies the hope. Large-scale availability of power, internet communication, clean water, clean power, better seeds, better weather predictions, more awareness of the ills of superstition and wasteful practices, more modern methods of clinical investigation, every one of these has its origin in physics, though it is often overlooked. Physics is a way of life and it has a very important role if we need to improve the lot of my people, which we must.