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‘Cyclotron’ – a Tribute To the Quiet Work of India’s Unsung Scientists

‘Cyclotron’ – a Tribute To the Quiet Work of India’s Unsung Scientists

A view of a part of the eponymous cyclotron. Photo: Cyclotron.

Take a machine that’s outlived its usefulness in Country A, usually in the West. Dismantle it, box it up and ship it to Country B, usually in the developing world. There, it is painstakingly reassembled and made functional by a small team, working with little knowledge but a lot of hope.

It seems like such an ordinary story, perhaps even touched by the banality of second-hand sadness. But as they puzzle over the nuts, bolts and components of this construction, reading the diagrams and figuring out where the different pieces go, as they work long nights and battle bureaucracy, and learn to work not only with their minds but also their hands, the young team is also building the foundations of a research culture that will foster education, enquiry and expertise in experimental physics.

Cyclotron, a documentary produced and directed by Jahnavi Phalkey and edited by Tanya Singh, is the story of how the world’s oldest particle accelerator – discarded in its original home in Rochester, New York – received a new lease of life in Chandigarh, when it was brought there by a young experimental physicist in 1967.

As he tells the story in the film, Harnam Singh Hans had learned that the particle physics lab at Rochester had received a new accelerator and was looking to get rid of their old one, along with its analyser. “All this is yours, for free” he was told by Prof. Harry Fulbright, “but you have to transport it.” Singh jumped at the offer – an audacious move considering that at the time he had no job, nor any links with the scientific hierarchy in India. Soon, however, he managed to secure a position at the Kurukshetra University in Punjab. “The only thing I had was a post, and the hope that India was ready to help somebody bring back a machine.”

That machine, a particle accelerator known as a cyclotron (because at its core is an electromagnetic spiral that pushes the particle to higher and higher speeds), generates high-energy beams that help scientists analyse of materials, bombard atoms to create short-lived isotopes useful in nuclear medicine, plus a variety of other applications. In the 1960s and 1970s, when the film begins its story, the cyclotron was the linchpin of experimental nuclear physics – with no more than three across the country, and none of these in North India.

The people who nurture the cyclotron have none of the resources we commonly associate with experimental high-energy physics facilities, like CERN. Photo: Cyclotron

Drawing on a series of oral histories, from Singh himself as well as others associated with him in those years, Phalkey reconstructs the journey of this particular cyclotron, from the challenges of its installation (there was no one in India who knew how to put it together) to the excitement of the first beam (variously remembered by members on the team as 1975, ’76 and ’78), to the gradual growth of an entire programme of experimental physics around its use. While Singh and his collaborator and former graduate student Inder Govil describe the broader context of the cyclotron’s journey, the details of assembling it, figuring out the various components without so much as an instruction manual to depend on, come from the engineers involved in the project.

“We had to work day and night,” laughs Bahadur, a testing engineer, his voice tired with age but his voice conveying the memory of the excitement of the experience. And “everybody worked on everything,” as Govil said.

The stories are spiced with anecdotes that convey a flavour of the times, the cultural and regional politics that inevitably find their way into academic life. They had to face criticism, even ridicule, from other institutions, for having brought back this “white elephant” of a machine that would never work.

“We were being [made fun of] by other departments, in other regions, saying that North Indians are fools, they cannot do any good science,” Singh recalls at one point. As it turned out, the presence of the cyclotron at Punjab University allowed scores of research scholars from the region to be trained in experimental particle physics. “The nuclear physics culture that was built here … is only because of the cyclotron,” says another researcher.

The film introduces visual variety with innovative use of archival material, ranging from postage stamps from the 1960s and 1970s featuring Homi Bhabha – considered to be the architect of India’s nuclear physics programme – and ‘Atoms for Peace’ to contemporary photographs and news clippings that give a sense of the ambitious framing of India’s nuclear aspirations at the time.

As a historian of science, Phalkey’s effort is to foreground the people and the sociopolitical and institutional dynamics that create the context of science, to reveal the often serendipitous ways in which decisions are made, actions are taken – and the consequences they have for the direction of knowledge production.

The science is very much a part of the film, of course, so that the non-physicist can appreciate what a cyclotron is and how it works, explained by the engineers and scientists who have come to know it so intimately. But in addition to the science, the film throws up little nuggets of information that point to the larger machinery of science, its funding and its infrastructure. For example, despite the expertise that had been built at Chandigarh with the cyclotron, a new accelerator, when it was acquired by the Department of Atomic Energy, was installed in Delhi because of the political unrest in Punjab during the early 1980s.

There are also glimpses of the interpersonal relationships that sustain experimental work, the sharing of lunches and chai, and the banter that eases the everyday. This is also what brings the film and its subject matter alive even to those who may have no understanding of physics or the history of science.

Ultimately, at the heart of the film is the intensely personal connection that Singh and the others in the facility – faculty members, engineers, students, support staff – have with the machine. As one of them puts it, “We fell in love with the cyclotron… it was our machine.”

Harnam Singh Hans in a scene from the documentary. Photo: Cyclotron

Speaking at the film’s premier at the Bangalore International Centre in September 2020, Phalkey noted, “I did not feel that a form that my field prefers – papers and books – had the capacity to bring out what doing this work meant to the people who were involved in it.”

Cyclotron tells the story of the kind of science that is often ignored by chroniclers, done in a relatively small institution, unpeopled by the big names that find their way into textbooks and museum plaques. The history of science in India is made up of many such stories, and telling them can give us a sense of where our disciplines come from and how priorities are set – and perhaps also give us clues to how we might rethink the present.

The film will be screened again from November 13 to 20 on the Indian Institute of Human Settlements (Bengaluru) site, and selected footage from the film along with transcripts will be available to researchers from the archives of University of Rochester and the American Association of Physics.

Usha Raman is a writer and academic based in Hyderabad.

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