Why you should care

Because India is not the only country asking: money for food or for science?

High-energy beams race toward each other through miles-long accelerators buried deep underground, colliding and scattering particles that could tell us why supernovas explode or what gives rise to mass. Elsewhere, detectors are hunting for gravitational waves that could give us a glimpse of the very beginnings of the universe.

Around the world, physics has entered a golden age — but can you guess which country is angling for a place at the top of the list of physics superstars?

The answer is India, which is trying to cement its position as a physics superpower by investing in a string of megaprojects. Just last month, the Indian government approved $235 million to construct a giant underground observatory to study neutrinos, subatomic particles that could yield answers to crucial questions, such as how matter first formed. Plans have also been set into motion to build a facility to detect gravitational waves, which could tell us about the universe just seconds after the Big Bang. And India continues to collaborate with CERN, or the European Organization for Nuclear Research, which is the largest particle physics laboratory in the world.

Theoretical physics can open academia’s doors to less privileged classes. It’s “fairly egalitarian in the sense it only requires pencil and paper.”

But all this activity and investment raises a question: Can a country that faces staggering sanitation and public health problems, where nearly a third of the population lives in poverty, afford to ponder the mysteries of theoretical physics?

Of course, similar debates have rocked wealthy countries, too, with some Americans questioning whether the benefits of NASA’s manned missions or the Human Genome Project were worth it. It’s true that the links between pure science and economic benefit are often indirect and that practical applications from research can be serendipitous. But they do exist, maintains Smita Srinivas, director of the Technological Change Lab at Columbia University. CERN physicists probably had no clue that their system for sharing data with institutions around the world would plant the seeds of the World Wide Web, for example.

Indian School children study in the dirt.

Some question India’s spending on experimental science facilities when the nation’s illiteracy rate hovers around 25 percent and millions struggle to afford basic necessities.

Source Chandan Khanna/Getty

Pioneering scientific discoveries could also bolster India’s self-image, which some argue could be an important step toward overcoming poverty. “When you feel inferior, we do those things that keep us poor,” said Sunil Mukhi, a theoretical physicist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research. Ambitious experiments that attract the attention and respect of the international physics community could inspire a new generation of scientists. Theoretical physics, in particular, can open academia’s doors to less privileged classes. It’s “fairly egalitarian in the sense it only requires pencil and paper,” not the cutting-edge equipment of applied-science labs, Srinivas said.

But can neutrino discoveries really inspire average citizens to pursue careers in physics? In a country where roughly 25 percent of the population is illiterate, “I’m not even sure people understand what physics is,” said Atanu Dey, an economist and author of Transforming India. He believes taxpayer money should fund schools, not physics megaprojects. “People are endemically poor because they can’t read and write.”

But Srinivas argues that “science should have its place without having to appeal to economic rationale.” Beyond economic gains, scientific literacy can empower people to question policies that exploit them, such as those that pose environmental health risks. The problem is, scientists usually don’t communicate the benefits in a way that the general public can understand. There’s a reason why a host of grassroots people’s science movements have emerged to popularize science.

India’s large-scale projects could usher it onto the global physics stage. Buried nearly a mile beneath Pottipuram and set to begin operations in 2020, the India-based Neutrino Observatory will house the world’s biggest magnet, designed to detect neutrinos. India also hopes to build the fourth in a worldwide network of gravitational wave detectors. Confirming the existence of these waves would bolster support for inflation theory, which holds that the universe expanded at an exponential rate in the first fraction of a second after the Big Bang. The country also has observer status at CERN, which allows it to participate in its meetings.

The renewed interest in basic science coincides with India taking on a larger geopolitical and economic role.

This renewed interest in basic science coincides with India taking on a larger geopolitical and economic role — having replaced Japan as the world’s third-largest economy (in terms of purchasing-power parity), after the U.S. and China. And it squares with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s call to prioritize science and technology, along with the Make in India campaign to transform the country into a manufacturing giant. But these developments are merely the latest in India’s already rich tradition of math and science. Indian mathematicians are credited with conceiving of zero as a number in the fifth century, while physicist C.V. Raman’s analysis of light scattering revolutionized the study of molecules. And Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, emphasized STEM education and promoted a “scientific temper” for curing society’s ills.

Whether India should allocate so much funding to physics research remains an open question, and some, like Srinivas, believe scientists, politicians and other stakeholders “should be beholden to more public debate.” In a country plagued by widespread poverty and public health problems, “the relationships they claim should always be scrutinized,” she added, suggesting that illuminating physical phenomena need not mean leaving the poor in the dark.

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