Tuesday 21 August 2007

TIFR-A Tribute

Business India, September 1-14, 2003
Reinventing a jewel

Can we fix something that isn’t broken? Director Shobo Bhattacharya and his colleagues are setting an ambitious agenda for TIFR in the 21st century

Shivanand Kanavi

Can we build a world-class scientific research institution in India? The question was posed nearly 60 years ago by Homi Bhabha in 1943, in a letter to J.R.D. Tata. He himself answered it in the affirmative and demonstrated it by building Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

Today we have several world-class institutions: Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore; National Chemical Laboratory, Pune; Central Leather Research Institute, Chennai; National Aerospace Laboratories, Bangalore; Central Food Technology Research Institute, Mysore; Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology, Hyderabad; Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, Pune; Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad; National Geophysical Research Institute, Hyderabad; Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Pusa; National Institute of Immunology, Delhi; Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Mumbai; and a few others. As for undergraduate education, in engineering and science the IITs and the University Institute of Chemical Technology, Mumbai, are among a dozen élite institutions renowned the world over.

And where does TIFR stand today, we asked R.A. Mashelkar, directorgeneral of CSIR and India’s most eloquent scientist- manager. “TIFR is already the best centre of excellence in scientific research that we have in the country. I monitor average impact factor per research paper as an indicator of quality within CSIR and the data show (see table below) sustained quality as well as leadership from TIFR,” he said.

The ‘impact factor’ is calculated based on number of times a particular paper is referred to by peers.

Mashelkar adds, “But our expectations from TIFR are higher. We would expect Nobel Prizewinners, FRSs and Foreign Associates of US National Academy of Sciences to emerge from TIFR”

What needs to be done for this? “Ambience and ambition are two essential ingredients for excellence of an institution. TIFR has the ambience, like no other institute in India has. Raising the ambition to a much higher level is what is required,” he adds.

Clearly the situation has changed a lot in the 1990s. Ambition and confidence are not lacking in the new generation of scientists that TIFR continues to attract. This correspondent spoke to several young scientists at TIFR like neurobiologist Vidita Vaidya, optoelectronics expert Arnab Bhattacharya, laser physicist Ravindra Kumar, and mathematician Arvind Nair, and found a confident ‘can-do’ attitude.

“The success of Indian IT and the changes in the Indian and global economy seem to have impacted us too. There is definitely impatience and a new spring in the step of youngsters here”, says Ravindra Kumar.

“In a sense we are thrown in at the deep end of the pool quite early in the day — we must get external funding for our research proposals. Today more than 50 per cent of biology funding comes from external agencies. This naturally makes us highly competitive in framing our proposals and delivering results,” says Vaidya.

Is TIFR well funded or does it face the same lack of equipment that most Indian universities and institutions find? “Of course money is never ‘enough’. But frankly speaking we have one of the best-equipped laboratories in several areas of investigation,” says Shobo Bhattacharya, the new director.

“We want TIFR to be a major centre for optoelectronics in India. We have an aggressive purchasing policy for equipment. In a few months we are getting state-of-the-art vapour deposition equipment costing almost a million dollars which will allow us to produce materials for researchers elsewhere in India, as well as work in cutting-edge areas like nitrides,” says Arnab Bhattacharya.

TIFR attracted first-rate astronomers and astrophysicists in the 1960s. Govind Swarup, now a Fellow of the Royal Society and retired, was invited by Bhabha to come from Stanford University and establish a group in radio astronomy in the early ’60s. Swarup and his team built an equatorial radio telescope near Ooty using a highly innovative design that used the local geography of hills and valleys. Their crowning triumph has been the very powerful Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) at Narayangaon near Pune. The facility is now fully functional and has also become available for international experiments.

TIFR has also done experiments in Xray astronomy and is today designing experiments to be sent up a special astronomical satellite by Isro in 2006 called Astrosat.

A strong theoretical astrophysics group is also active, though it was depleted when Jayant Narlikar left TIFR to establish the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Pune.

Shobo Bhattacharya, a condensed matter physicist, has extensive experience in the US, having spent almost 30 years in R & D with Exxon and NEC. “In fact, being under the umbrella of DAE, we don’t have to struggle for funds as at the top US universities. Today senior scientists in the world are scrambling for funds and spend most of their time with funding agencies. Our scientists don’t have to face that,” says Bhattacharya. Having come from a different environment, Bhattacharya brings a fresh perspective.

“At times it is our impatience with some procedures that leads to complaints, but once you get to know the system you find that it runs slowly, but smoothly. Of course if one thinks of an experiment in the middle of the night and wants to do it the next day, there is a problem. In such cases our competitors elsewhere have an edge. We need to plan things much more in advance,” says Vaidya.

Ternary convergence: Bhabha, JRD and Nehru
On his return from Cambridge in 1943 Homi Bhabha, who had done first-rate work in theoretical physics and had become a Fellow of the Royal Society at an astonishingly young age of 32, had a vision he systematically set forth to realise. He sounded J.R.D. Tata out for financial support from the Tata Trusts to execute his plans. JRD needed very little convincing and he advised him, “If you and some of your colleagues in the scientific world will put up a concrete proposal backed by a sound case, I think there is a very good chance that the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and perhaps also the Sir Ratan Tata Trust will respond. After all, the advancement of science is one of the fundamental objects with which most of the Tata Trusts were founded, and they have already rendered useful service in that field.”
Thus Bhabha wrote a four-page letter on 12 March 1944 to Sir Sorab Saklatvala, a trustee of Dorab Tata Trust. It began, “I have for some time past nurtured the idea of founding a first-class school of research in the most advanced branches of physics in Bombay.”

The letter cogently put forward his vision and ended with, “I have come more and more to the view that provided proper appreciation and financial support are forthcoming, (emphasis his) it is one’s duty to stay in one’s own country and build up schools comparable with those that other countries are fortunate in possessing. If Tatas would decide to sponsor an institute such as I propose through their Trusts, I am sure that they would be taking the initiative in a move which will be supported soon from many directions and be of lasting benefit to India.”

The Government of Bombay also came forward to back the proposal and thus, with modest support from Dorab Tata Trust and a total budget of Rs80,000 for the year 1945–46, the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research came into being at Kenilworth, a bungalow on Pedder Road in Mumbai, where Bhabha was in fact born. CSIR, then headed by S.S. Bhatnagar, gave a generous grant of Rs75,000 as it was interested in fostering research in nuclear physics. In 1948 Jawaharlal Nehru was convinced of Bhabha’s vision of the strategic importance of atomic energy to newly independent India and the Atomic Energy Commission was set up. Soon, with growing collaboration between AEC and TIFR, the needs of the institute grew and in 1949 it was shifted from Kenilworth to the Old Yacht Club near the Gateway of India. In 1956, with the growing importance of T I F R in the atomic energy programme, the Government of
India entered into a tripartite agreement with Dorab Tata Trust and the Government
of Bombay (now Maharashtra) and slowly took it entirely under the wings of the Department of Atomic Energy. However, the institute is still run by a management council with representatives from all three parties and with considerable autonomy, unlike any government body.

Till 1961, when the institute’s tastefully designed Colaba campus was built, T I F R was housed in the Yacht Club. The land at Colaba belonged to the defence ministry and was still littered with old barracks, and it was in those barracks that the controls for Apsara, the first nuclear reactor in entire Asia, and TIFRAC, the first digital computer, were designed and built. Bhabha was of the firm view that great institutes are built around people, not buildings.

Bhattacharya has a tough job. He has to lead his team in reinventing TIFR to suit the environment in the 21st century. There is a popular American saying: “Don’t fix something that isn’t broken” — and we need to keep that in mind. TIFR continues to be a great place to work. But it also needs to reinvent itself. The changes needed might seem incremental, but when added up they might look formidable.

Bhattacharya is aware of the complexity of his task and is proceeding cautiously. Being an ‘outsider’, he suffers from the fact that he does not know the micro details of problems or their history, but he also enjoys the advantage that he does not carry the baggage of history and brings a fresh point of view. His experience in corporate research must have also impressed the search committee.

What is the agenda that he has set himself? “My immediate agenda is simple: recruit the best faculty and students. Here we need to adopt active search by targeting individuals,” he says. He does not call it poaching, but having worked in corporate environments at Exxon and NEC he clearly is familiar with the expression. As for attracting the best students, he faces a tough problem. TIFR has started an undergraduate internship programme, which is hugely popular and entry is highly competitive. But most of those students want TIFR on their CVs and want to go abroad for PhDs. The only consolation is that many of them might want to come back as young faculty. “We need to develop an overall outreach strategy that will enhance our profile among the public, which in turn will attract the best young students to us,” he says. In fact the recent public lectures by visiting scientists Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose were part of that outreach.
While on ‘marketing’ TIFR, Bhattacharya is embarrassed by TIFR’s Website. The institute might have been the cradle of Indian computer science, but it still sports a totally obsolete Website. The institute, despite a budget of close to Rs150 crore, also does not use much of IT in its procurement or administration or HR, something the new director is keen to change soon.

The fruit fly community
“We are known as the fruit fly group,” said Vidita Vaidya, a young neurobiologist at TIFR. When we want to study the nervous system we would like to tinker with it and see the effects not only on the creature but also on the future generations of that creature. Thus we need systems that multiply fast and show the effects on future generations quickly. The small fruit flies are ideal, since they multiply rapidly. More than a quarter-century of work on fruit flies, much of that here in TIFR, has led to tremendous depth in understanding the system thoroughly. So when one of us comes up with a bright new hypothesis, we naturally turn to fruit flies to prove it,” adds Vidita. Pioneering work done in the 1960s and ’70s by Obaid Siddiqui, which earned him accolades and a fellowship of the Royal Society, and his students like Veronica Rodrigues, on Drosophila, the common fruit fly, has created the scientific infrastructure for the same.

The T I F R biology group, strong in neurobiology, is now split into a large group in Mumbai and an even bigger group at the National Centre for Biological Sciences at
Bangalore. The two work in tandem. There is intense activity at both and both have achieved international acclaim for their work. The areas studied include: how are signals transmitted between neurons (brain cells); the secret of smell and taste; why proteins fold the way they do (the way a protein folds determines to a large extent the function of each protein); how muscles develop; the immune system; learning and memory; emotional coding of stress and fear; whether stress leads to changes inside the brain; and so on.

A whole bunch of interesting questions no doubt. Naturally the world is following their work closely. In a recent public lecture Siddiqui recounted that when he joined TIFR in the 1960s “you were limited by your own capabilities”. Many of the younger lot would agree with that despite the highly competitive world of global research they live in today.

Bhattacharya is also carefully reviewing all existing programmes along with the senior faculty so that nothing is taken for granted and every project is justified competitively. If necessary some projects might get closed down.

Even though most Indian scientists like Mashelkar would be envious of the environment, and lack of bureaucratic procedures, in TIFR, Bhattacharya would like to simplify them further. He would also like to delegate authority. Today the director has to get involved even in leave applications and so on. “We would also like to get out of governmental accounting procedures and establish alternative acceptable ones.”

Nation - building
It is improper to talk about spin-offs from TIFR. After all the founding of TIFR was part of a nation-building exercise. Bhabha clearly looked at it as a mother institution. Hence, when India embarked on its nuclear programme, TIFR provided the initial manpower and expertise. The very first reactor Apsara’s controls were designed and built at TIFR.
Over 46 scientists were loaned to the Atomic Energy Establishment at Trombay. Today’s highly profitable Nuclear Power Corporation, whose net profits crossed Rs1,000 crore two years ago, by generating electricity using nuclear reactors, can be considered as a grandchild of TIFR.

The expertise in building digital computers at TIFR later helped the Electronic Corporation of India build the TDC (Trombay Digital Computers) series for real-time computing. Similarly, the radio astronomy group helped in building the first satellite earth station at Arvi for Overseas Communication Service (now V S N L). This was later commercialized by ECIL into a healthy microwave antenna business. The defence electronics work at TIFR led to the formation of SAMEER (Society for the Advancement of Microwave Engineering and Electronics Research). It is also not so well known that the experiments in digital switching at TIFR formed the core of C-DOT’s technology, which revolutionized telecom in India with its inexpensive and robust digital switches.

A major complaint heard in the corridors of TIFR is of course the lack of travel facilities. After all, scientists grow with international exposure and the current finances are structured in such a way that travel to conferences becomes very difficult. In fact many scientists do believe that here the new chairman of the management council, Ratan Tata, would be able to help them out with his perspective. “We need to collect endowments so that we get flexibility, especially in travel. We are well supported by government, but need some flexibility. We plan to reach out to the community and friends of TIFR” Efforts in this direction, which started before Bhattacharya took over as director, have already yielded some results. Kanwal and Ann Rekhi, S.D. Shibulal, Sudha and Narayan Murthy, Harish Chandra’s family, Sasken Technologies, and others have come forward with contributions.

However, as Mashelkar points out, the difficulty with science is often not with the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones. A certain amount of irreverence is essential for creative pursuit in science. “I believe that if we promote that irreverence in Indian science, by change of personal attitudes, change of funding patterns, creating new organisational values, creating that extra space for risk-taking, respecting the occasional mavericks, and rewarding the risk-takers, then not only will the fun and joy of doing science increase, but Indian science will also make that much awaited difference,” he adds.

A new development that might bring that irreverence to TIFR is the deemed university status it has newly acquired. This might eventually lead to TIFR getting involved in undergraduate education. This will be welcomed by all Indian students and TIFR is sure to benefit by having bright young minds around. Bhattacharya is thrilled by the opportunity he has in being part of reinventing TIFR.

Parallel worlds
As biologists and physicists dirty their hands with fruit flies, semiconductors, zapping lasers, and high-energy accelerators, the mathematicians at T I F R form a different breed. They live in a parallel world of extreme abstraction, which even most natural scientists do not understand. It is the world of strange shapes of algebraic geometry that do not look or sound like anything that we learnt in geometry — remember those cones, cylinders, spheres, and the rest? Or number theory, which doesn’t sound like the arithmetic we all learnt, or Lie (pronounced ‘lee’) groups, which even quantum physicists who use similar names do not understand.

But higher mathematicians the world over highly respect the group at TIFR. The International Congress of Mathematicians, which meets once in four years, is the very élite of global mathematics. According to M.S. Raghunathan, a Fellow of the Royal Society renowned for his work in Lie groups, invited talks are given at the congress by a select group of about 150 mathematicians from all over the world. It is remarkable that in almost every congress since 1970 there has been an invited talk by at least one TIFR mathematician .

Though Bhabha was a practical scientist who wanted to build capability in nuclear physics in India, he also saw the need for building a strong group of abstract mathematicians.
Similar culture at the Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton, must have influenced him and appropriately he persuaded K. Chandrasekharan to come from Princeton to work at TIFR. Chandrasekharan, a high-profile mathematician himself, is credited with building a first-rate mathematics group here. He brought top-notch mathematicians from all over the world to visit the then unknown TIFR and lecture there. TIFR’s lecture notes of those days are sought after all over the world even today.

TIFR over the last five decades has been one of the top places to do research in abstract mathematics.

In a parallel track, TIFR is also involved in organising science Olympiads in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics. Indian students are regularly winning Gold and Silver medals in these fiercely competitive Olympiads. These competitions are playing a highly motivational role in drawing bright young minds to science. M.S. Raghunathan who is also involved in organising the Maths Olympiad was recently pleasantly surprised when he sent a congratulatory message to Manindra Agarwal, and his students Neeraj Kayal and Nitin Saxena of IIT Kanpur. The trio had hit international headlines by cracking a three hundred year old problem in number theory. In turn Kayal and Saxena thanked Raghunathan for encouraging them as school students in the Maths Olympiad!

Nehru believed that science and technology were tools to pull India into modernity. Increasingly weighed down by the vagaries of national and international politics, he found refuge in the company of scientists. Inaugurating the campus on 15 January1962, he said, “It has been a great pleasure to me, and something like an exhilarating experience, to come here from time to time and to see the growth in our scientific work, whether on the other side at Trombay or here. This takes me out of the normal rut in which I live, which is often depressing.”

It is a testimony to the vitality of this institution that 40 years after Nehru’s observation TIFR still has the same exhilarating effect on its visitors.

Art of the matter
Bhabha’s love was quantum physics. He encouraged investigations into the structure of matter, both from the experimental angle as well as the theoretical one. As a result TIFR built up one of the finest groups in the study of cosmic rays. Cosmic rays are naturally available high-energy particles entering our atmosphere from far corners of the universe. In the absence of large particle accelerators, cosmic rays provided a natural source of investigations into particle physics. Today scientists at TIFR participate in experiments with other international scientists at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN),
Geneva, and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, Chicago. In the mad, mad world of high-energy physics, large multinational and multidisciplinary groups have become a must for conducting and analysing experiments. Today it is not uncommon to see a two-page paper written in the Physical Review Letters authored by over a hundred scientists (a few of them from TIFR)!

Theoretical physicists too had remarkable successes in the 1960s and early ’70s.
Today TIFR has a very strong group in String Theory, which walks the thin line between mathematics and physics.

In the case of materials TIFR had early success with semiconductors and microelectronics with the group led by K. Ramanathan. The group did cuttingedge work in microelectronics in those days. Unfortunately this early expertise could not be capitalised later. However, in the 1980s, TIFR shot into the limelight again when L.C. Gupta and R. Nagarajan gave the world a new class of materials called boro-carbides, which exhibited high-temperature superconductivity —the holy grail of electrical engineering, where materials conduct electricity with practically zero loss during transmission.

Pioneering computer science in India
Modern digital computers came into being at the end of World War II. The first one built was E N I A C at the University of Pennsylvania in 1946. John von Neumann played a leading role in conceptualising it and a more refined version of the same at Princeton later. In fact, von Neumann’s report on the Princeton computer EDVAC can be considered as the beginning of computer science. It is interesting to find that computer science did not take very long to come to India. R. Narasimhan was probably the first Indian to study computer science in the US back in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
After his PhD in mathematics he returned in 1954 and joined Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, being built by Homi Bhabha.

In the early 1950s it was audacious, to say the least. Comparing these efforts with those of contemporaries, Narasimhan says, “Looking at the Princeton computer, IBM 701, and the two T I F R machines, it emerges that except for its size, the TIFR pilot machine was quite in pace with the state of the art in 1954. TIFRA too was not very much behind the attempts elsewhere in 1957.”

The pioneering work at T I F R in the 1950s and ’60s is being now extended to new limits. Narendra Karmarkar, who won the prestigious Fulkerson Prize for the work he did in efficient algorithms at Bell Labs in the ’80s, is trying to build a group of young computational mathematicians under the aegis of T I F R at Pune to test the frontiers of the science of algorithms.


Sidharth K said...

I'm at TIFR presently and I enjoyed your article: it was upbeat and full of interesting vignettes. It's true that the atmosphere for research at TIFR is slightly different from other institutions in India. There seems to be a can do attitude.

The government needs to give more operational freedom to fully unleash the abilities of our scientists. Still, as India opens up and becomes richer I see things greatly improving for research in India.

Hope to read about TIFR from you sometime in the future.


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