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Why the cyclotron in Chandigarh has a special place in science history

The oldest functional particle accelerator in the world has been kept running for over 50 years at Panjab University, Chandigarh. A new film tells its story

The insides of the cyclotron (Image courtesy Jahnavi Phalkey)
The insides of the cyclotron (Image courtesy Jahnavi Phalkey)

In 1967, one of the world’s oldest particle accelerators, built in the 1930s, was sent from the University of Rochester, USA to be housed at Panjab University, Chandigarh. Invented by American nuclear scientist Ernest O. Lawrence in 1929–1930 at the University of California, Berkeley, this particular type of particle accelerator, also known as a cyclotron, is an apparatus in which charged atomic and subatomic particles are accelerated by an alternating electric field while following an outward spiral or circular path in a magnetic field. Cyclotrons are built on the same principles as more famous particle accelerators, such as the Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), but on a smaller scale, used not only for conducting experiments in nuclear physics but also for imaging in nuclear medicine; Lawrence was awarded the 1939 Nobel Prize in Physics for this invention.

While nuclear physics has advanced phenomenally over the past 90-odd years, the cyclotron currently housed at Panjab University still works and is used by researchers and a dedicated team of technicians that keeps it running—making it the world’s oldest functional particle accelerator. Science historian Jahnavi Phalkey, director of Science Gallery Bengaluru, started studying the cyclotron and its history as part of her doctoral research, and this has culminated in a recently released film called Cyclotron about the device and its history. Mint spoke to Phalkey about the film, which explores the life and legacy of the machine as well as the struggles and triumphs of its technicians, researchers and students. Edited excerpts from an interview:

What evoked your interest in this particular particle accelerator? How did you go about tracing its origin and history? How well known was it when you first heard of it?

Phalkey: This film grew out of my doctoral research on the beginnings of experimental nuclear physics in India. Between 2003-06, I studied six laboratories that wanted to build or acquired particle accelerators before and after Independence. I studied no less than six because there was no way to know if I would have enough archival material on any one to write a hundred-thousand word thesis. Luckily for me, two new archives opened up during my research—the TIFR archives and the Indian Institute of Science Archives and the personal papers of a physicist in Bangalore, which meant I was able to write my thesis, and later my first book (Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth Century India), based on the first three laboratories in India—Calcutta (Kolkata), Bangalore (Bengaluru) and Bombay (Mumbai)—to attempt experimental nuclear physics.

Chandigarh was one of the remaining three that I had researched. I first became aware of its existence, if I remember correctly, in late 2002 or early 2003 during a late-night-all-night online search on particle accelerators in India: all I found was a brief story in a Physics Today article. In April of that year, I visited the University of Rochester to meet Professor Harry Fulbright, who enabled the transfer of the cyclotron to India. That same summer, I took a trip to Chandigarh to meet Professor Harnam Hans and to see the cyclotron. Some of my photographs from that trip are in the film.

I met many of the nuclear physics community in India during my research and most were aware of the Chandigarh cyclotron. However, I don’t think this is well known outside of the nuclear physics community. I have recently met many young physicists who do not know about it at all!

What was your motivation behind making this film?

Phalkey: This is a story of everyday science in a regional Indian university with a historically extraordinary machine. My own colleagues in history of science hardly knew about the story, leave alone any such story in the public domain even in India. Having met the warm, generous and incredibly hard-working people who re-built the machine to keep it going for more than 50 years, I was keen to tell the story through their eyes and their words. A film now seems to be the most appropriate form to do so. But that decision emerged serendipitously.

My research on the three laboratories that did not make it into the book— Chandigarh, Kanpur and Calcutta—was begging attention. If I was a good academic, I would have written three academic papers or a new book on the ‘American Decade’ of nuclear physics in India, something I sort of promised and did not fully deliver on during my postdoctoral fellowship at Imperial College London. Instead, I allowed myself to get distracted by the history of aeronautics and of statistics, which I have enjoyed tremendously.

By then, I had joined King’s College London in 2011; we were given small annual grants and I used mine to join a documentary filmmaking course at University College London. It was an amazing course because it came with a complete entry-level film making kit. Most of my coursemates took sensible decisions and filmed shorts in and around London. By the end of that four-month course, I knew what I was going to do: I took my kit to India and asked my cinematographer friend Neeraj Sahay, if he was up to taking an all-costs-covered-but-no-fees filming trip to Chandigarh. He agreed!

Professor Harnam Hans, whose idea it was to bring the cyclotron from the United States to India
Professor Harnam Hans, whose idea it was to bring the cyclotron from the United States to India

Why do you think the world should know about this device?

It was audacious to think that one could simply ship a cyclotron to India from the United States in the mid-1960s and establish an experimental nuclear physics facility. This was not a Government of India initiative, nor was it an initiative of the government in the United States. This was an ambitious young physicist wanting to return to India, wanting to pursue nuclear physics in a university setting as opposed to a Department of Atomic Energy facility, and he took the initiative to bring the equipment to India and let it become the kernel of research and training in experimental nuclear physics in northern India. I want this audacity, ambition and struggle to create an experimental research culture to be appreciated

Second, it is no mean feat to assemble any cyclotron anywhere. It was an even more difficult task to re-build one from the 1930s, after having dismantled it completely and shipped it far away from people who knew how it worked. This difficult task was accomplished largely by a group of technicians and engineers most of whom had never seen a working cyclotron before! And they have kept it running for over 50 years with less than adequate funding or support.

Given that you're not a trained filmmaker, what kind of help did you have in terms of the technical aspects of filmmaking?

Phalkey: Finding the right editor for this film wasn’t easy. How to make a film about people who also do science and how to make a film about science that is about the people who make it possible? In the first instance, I was a debutant, first-time filmmaker who had learned to think in words and not images. Second, this film ran the danger of being seen as a “science documentary" of niche interest that would not appeal to larger audiences. The first editor that I approached did not think I had a film and suggested an art installation instead (I might still do that!) and then I wasn’t able to fully communicate the complexity of the film to the next two. I met Tanya Singh in London more than two years after filming and serendipitously, she came with extremely strong connections to Chandigarh through her parents. She plunged into the film, pushed me to think harder about why I was making the film, took me seriously when I told her why and helped make a film out of a historians footage of words, words and more words. I could not have made this film in this way, without her.

Two small grants helped fuel the project: I received a small grant from the American Institute of Physics which helped with the editors fees, and my own research grant at the India Institute, King’s College London, which allowed me embark on this project. Other than that, I have funded this film myself.

Why was the accelerator dismantled and sent from the USA to India? Was its first home at the Punjab University or did it have any other home in India as well?

Phalkey: The University of Rochester's story of decommissioning the accelerator is the story of particle physics in the 1960s—the accelerators got bigger and bigger and the small ones were cannibalised for building other equipment or decommissioned and sold for scrap: Rochester acquired a bigger accelerator. The shipment was first sent to Kurukshetra University in 1967 from where it was transferred very quickly, without unpacking, to Chandigarh where Professor Hans was appointed to the Department of Physics.

Over the years, in what ways has the cyclotron been used?

Phalkey: By the time the cyclotron was in Chandigarh, it had been in existence for three decades and was no longer an instrument for use at the cutting edge of research frontiers. It was, however, still quite good to carry out further experiments in basic nuclear physics, replicate earlier experiments for training purposes, and applications in material sciences. It is important to remember that, if one wanted to do any nuclear research at the time a machine of this kind was a necessity, not a luxury.

In the early years of its functioning in Chandigarh, at one point, the team likely produced the largest number of papers globally on Coulomb excitation (a technique in experimental nuclear physics to probe the electromagnetic aspect of nuclear structure). While that might not have provided breakthroughs, it still provided robust research outcomes.

What is the particle accelerator used for today? Is it still useful or an anachronism that has been kept going for sentimental reasons?

Phalkey: Today, the primary use of the cyclotron is threefold: first, it is used to study materials (no longer basic nuclear physics experiments) with PIXE (Proton Induced X-ray Emission Spectroscopy or Particle Induced X-ray Emission Spectroscopy) and PIGE (proton induced gamma-ray emission) both analytical techniques for identifying the elements in any given sample. Second, it is used for hands-on-training of postgraduate students which prepares them to work with machines of higher energy elsewhere. Last, and not the least, it is used for science teaching of young adults who are invited to see the cyclotron and get a sense of the engineering that makes basic research possible.

What are the conclusions you draw after having researched the accelerator's history? What do you think it says about research facilities in Indian universities especially in big science like particle physics? Do you think Indian students and researchers have adequate infrastructure to do world-class research?

Phalkey: Universities in India are not adequately resourced at all. This is equally true for both the human and the natural sciences, and, therefore, not simply a matter of pumping some extra resources alone. Our institutions of national importance are better resourced but work in silos. This has a significant impact on the kind of training we are able to give to our students across the board and its full impact is felt negatively on our ability to cultivate a vibrant research culture all round. It also reflects on the near absence of industrial research on the scale required and possible in a country the size of India. This will have to change if we want to nurture world-class research in India.

Watch Cyclotron, directed by Jahnavi Phalkey and edited by Tanya Singh, here.

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