There’s more to the north Indian city of Chandigarh than clean roads and a capital that it shares with two states, Punjab and Haryana. In the basement of its Panjab University runs the world’s oldest functional cyclotron—one of the earliest machines built to discover what the universe is made of.
Crudely speaking, a cyclotron is a particle accelerator quite like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva, which produces sub-atomic particles smaller than protons at high speeds. But, the hero of our story is far more primitive. In fact, the Chandigarh cyclotron was only the third such particle accelerator to be built, in 1936, and is the only one from its time in working order rather than gracing museums, 84 years since.
And this is all thanks to the staff and scholars at the physics department here, who made one man's mission of fostering the culture of experimental nuclear physics in north India their own despite being total novices. Science historian Jahnavi Phalkey has now immortalised this extraordinary story in a new documentary.
“Barring a small machine at Aligarh and one that was coming up in Kanpur, there was no accelerator to study experimental nuclear physics in north [India] that time,” Phalkey from Bengaluru offers perspective. The North could have lagged behind Bombay in the west and Calcutta in the east due to the 1947 Partition, she surmises.
In the mid-1960s, a young experimental physicist, Harnam Singh Hans, came to know that this particular cyclotron was up for donation at the University of Rochester, New York. Next, the film simply called Cyclotron, shows how Hans decided to give up a career in America and return to India to set up the cyclotron at Kurukshetra University in Haryana.
Hans listed the help of his former student, 25-year-old Indra Mani Govil, who flew to Rochester to have the cyclotron dismantled, packed and put on boats in seven to eight crates in 1966.
“It was a challenge from Day 1 itself,” Govil, now 79 and a retired physics professor, recalls, also on behalf of Hans who's no more. “The shipment got stuck in Mumbai. I had to go from Kurukshetra to convince the Customs officials that we weren't smuggling in gold. That it was research equipment.” The talks came through, the crates reached Kurukshetra and were stored at a cement godown because they were that massive.
But challenges only grew from here. Hans and Govil soon realised Kurukshetra didn’t have the infrastructure to set up the cyclotron, so the project was transferred to Panjab University in the region instead. A crane was deployed to lift the cyclotron's 20,000 kilograms magnet. An underground lab of many rooms was built to house vacuum pumps, rotary units, wiring, controllers and whatnot. And then, Govil went to England to get trained on how a cyclotron works.
Yes, nobody in the department knew how to build a cyclotron. Lab assistant Bishambar Dass and technician SR Bahadur started tinkering with its nuts, bolts and parts, which were obsolete by three decades already. “I was an air conditioner mechanic, so I was called to install its AC,” cracks up 69-year-old Zora Singh, who left the University as a technical officer. A few more lab technicians and engineers and even PhD students jumped in on the experiment of their lifetime.
After many missed lunches, late-nighters and external help, they
could extract a beam of electrically-charged particles for experiments—almost a decade after the cyclotron arrived in India. “To get a cyclotron working a second time is no trivial achievement. So much engineering goes behind it,” Phalkey explains.
Govil recalls the disbelief that surrounded the cyclotron's second innings, “It was called a white elephant, a waste of time and university funds. Some people thought we had produced the beam from a torch (just to prove we can do it).”
Thereon, the cyclotron became the regional research facility that Hans had hoped for. PhD and MSc students from nearby cities of Amritsar, Patiala, Kurukshetra, Allahabad and Shimla, and countries like Iran, started milling in. Graduates went on to work at the premiere Inter-University Accelerator Centre in Delhi and the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai, while many returned to regional universities as professors.
“Our department produced many research papers on nuclear structure and gamma spectroscopy and we even got a Center of Advanced Study,” Govil informs. “It was no mean feat to set up a particle accelerator inside a university independently—outside the help of the Department of Atomic Energy,” stresses Govil, who didn't publish papers for the first 10 years and even rejected an offer to work abroad to make the cyclotron work.
Triumphant, now Hans wanted a national-level particle accelerator at the Panjab University. “Prime minister Indira Gandhi herself signed the project in 1984, a day before she was shot dead,” Zora throws back to the tragedy. But Gandhi's assassination led to riots in the region and that accelerator went to IUAC in Delhi.
As researchers started flocking to the state-of-art IUAC, Govil decided to reinvent the cyclotron around 1998. Techniques like PIXE (Proton Induced X-ray Emission Spectroscopy) and PIGE (Proton Induced Gamma-Ray Emission) were brought in to study the concentration of trace elements in water, air, antiques, coffee, herbs, coal, etc.
“We moved from using the cyclotron for nuclear physics to applied physics and material sciences,” Govil simplifies, also sharing that the lab has become a site for school excursion. Among other changes, the initial team has retired. Some have passed away, others are a call away. “They called me two-three years ago to fix an electrical problem,” Singh informs. Lack of funds, continuous power and technicians have made the going tough. “It has so many joints that if there's one leak, it takes too much time and labour to trace it,” says Ashok K Pundir, the current in-charge of the cyclotron.
Still, to assume the department is keeping the cyclotron going on in the age of CERN out of mere sentimental value is wrong. “Cyclotron is an old machine but not unmodern to use. Many cyclotrons are now being used in hospitals to produce radioisotopes that are used in cancer treatment,” Phalkey defends.
So how long can the cyclotron go? “If its vacuum tubes go bad, it will be a challenge,” Pundir says. The original magnets, oscillator circuit and controller parts still remain but some pumps, power supplies and parts have been painfully replaced or fabricated.
Whatever be the fate of the cyclotron, the story of Hans’ courage, Govil's selflessness and their team's enthusiasm will live on. “The University of Maryland wants to use my film in their physics class,” informs Phalkey while Hans’ son, Vikram, shares, “My nephew, who went to the Rochester University three years ago, says its physics department is aware that their cyclotron is still functioning.”
You can catch the screening of Cyclotron film here till November 20.
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