TIFR — Research at TIFR

From working on subatomic particles to combining Algebra and Geometry, students at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research are doing it all. Sanchayan Bhattacharjee reports.
Even Einstein could not have envisaged that his equations would one day become the foundation stone of a multimillion dollar Global Positioning System (GPS) industry. While many of us rave about Google maps, the equations do not always get the same mention. Einstein’s work is a an example of basic or pure research, which often gets crowded out amidst more monetarily profitable application based research. While it is true that basic research may not reap tangible rewards immediately, it is essential for all kinds of applied research.

Take for instance, John Matthew’s research. Matthew deals with wires (nanowires) 1000 times thinner than an average human hair, which could have number of applications in semiconductor technology and by extension, in manufacturing transistors, circuits and computers. “I study oscillations and resonance of these nanowires under different conditions of temperature, pressure, applied tension and amount of current passed. This gives information on different parameters like the thermal expansion of the material and energy lost under different conditions,” he says.

Matthew is one of the 475 PhD students engaged in different basic research activities at TIFR. Broadly classified, each project falls under the Natural Sciences, Mathematics or Computer Science department. Students with a Master of Sciences (MSc) degree can apply for the five year PhD programme while students who have completed their graduation can apply for the three year MSc or six year integrated PhD programme. “Almost all the funding for research is received from the Department of Atomic Energy and in addition to accommodation, students are provided with a monthly stipend of up to Rs18,000 to aid their research endeavours,” says Kishore Menon, a TIFR official.

Anand Sawant, another PhD student works in the area of Algebraic Geometry. In very basic terms, the subject field involves using equations instead of drawings and figures in geometry. The idea is to examine the common solutions of algebraic equations by studying the geometry of objects formed by them. “I focus on the invariants of various complex objects which do not change (homotopy theory). For example, a rubber band can be used to form a circle, ellipse or square which are different geometrically, but from the homotopic perspective they are the same,” says Sawant. His research studies these invariants using different methods in the proper context. It is important to conduct research in this area as it has conceptual connections with other fundamental branches of mathematics such as number theory, complex analysis and topology.

Intense laser fields and their interaction with matter forms another important area of research. According to Malay Dalui, a PhD student, instead of using huge particle accelerators (the one at TIFR is 8 floors high), laser fields which are much smaller in size can be used to create matter of extremely high densities. “Lasers can produce a high intensity pulse that interacts with the electrons without affecting the bulk of the material,” he says.

In addition, laser fields have also been used to accelerate neutral particles, which remain unaffected by electrical and magnetic fields. “We have been able to accelerate these particles to speeds which are much more than the acceleration due to gravity,” he says. This research is important as it gives impetus to the study of sub atomic particles where the conventional laws of physics cease to exist.

Since all the research in this institute involves pure sciences, a certain level of academic excellence is expected from all students. “Except for students from a few institutes in the country, most students do not have the familiarity towards research in terms of equipment, guidance etc. However what is encouraging is that an increasing number of students for IITs are getting involved in research work rather than opt for corporate jobs,” says M Krishnamurthy, professor, TIFR.

Most of these research projects attempt to venture in areas hitherto unexplored. Thus while the outcome of research may not be written in stone, it certainly takes us further in the quest for knowledge.

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