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Matin Durrani: October 2010 Archives

By Matthew Chalmers

Flowers presentation
Credit: BARC

If you’re wondering who that is second from right, holding a bunch of flowers while desperately trying to smile naturally in front of a camera, right in the hub of India’s nuclear power programme, it’s me. I was in the subcontinent after being sent by Physics World magazine to write about India’s audacious “three-stage” nuclear programme that seeks to exploit the country’s vast reserves of thorium as an alternative nuclear fuel to uranium. (You can read my final article “Enter the thorium tiger” in the October issue of the magazine, which can be downloaded free of charge via this link.)

The bouquet, along with a large leather wallet, was presented to me as a gift from directors of the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) near Mumbai. My fellow flower holders – all from the British High Commission in Delhi – were there to build links between UK and Indian nuclear scientists, while I was present to unearth what I could about India’s nuclear plans. The flowers came from BARC’s extensive flowerbeds, which were laid at the request of the late physicist Homi Bhabha.

BARC, near Mumbai. Credit: BARC

There’s a certain romanticism to the way Bhabha, who established India’s nuclear programme 60 years ago, is revered among Indian nuclear physicists. He not only provided a vision of energy security that thrives 44 years after his untimely death in an air crash above the Alps, but used his connections to set in place an infrastructure that ensured his vision became reality.

Initially perplexed at why other countries weren’t exploiting thorium – a fuel that has many benefits over uranium – I asked one senior BARC physicist why the UK doesn’t have a nuclear roadmap like India’s. “Ah!,” he said, waving a finger at me, “it’s because you don’t have a Bhabha!”

Indian nuclear physicists take great pride in having developed most of their technology indigenously, owing to India’s being a nuclear-armed nation outside the non-proliferation treaty (NPT). But writing my article for Physics World. was not without its challenges.

Professional hierarchy is more apparent than in, say, a UK physics laboratory, and at times the atmosphere while I was at BARC was hugely formal, particularly when the new lab director was present. Plans to meet a few students and postdocs working at BARC were soon dashed, and recording equipment in India’s heavily guarded government labs is none too popular either.

Access to India’s nuclear programme would have been difficult were it not for the diplomatic context of my visit – and even then there were issues when it came to dealing with India’s top nuclear officials.

Changing geopolitical relations, particularly since 2008, when the US and India signed an agreement that led to India being brought into the nuclear fold, have led several countries to line up to co-operate with India on civil nuclear trade and technology. The UK is one of them.

During my trip the new UK prime minister was also visiting India, along with a trade delegation. Shortly afterwards, a bunch of joint research grants between physicists in the UK and India were funded – selected from a dozen fully costed proposals drawn up in just two days in the basement of a central London hotel back in March amid a flurry of sticky notes and chirpy facilitators from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It was an impressive feat to witness, although not without a few bemused faces. Most of the nine Indian and 20 UK delegates had never met nor had much idea about each other’s research interests.

The Mumbai streets. Credit: M Chalmers

One thing that most surprised me in India is how few people on the street, so to speak, seem to know anything about India’s nuclear programme. Those who did know about thorium (whom I found while sipping cold beer in Chennai’s Madras Club, having visited India’s other big nuclear lab – the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research (IGCAR) on the other side of the country to Mumbai) all thought the programme was nowhere near on track, which is not what the physicists involved will tell you. Most people I got chatting to also assumed that I was interested in their views on weapons, rather than on civil nuclear power, with one or two asserting India’s right to develop them.

There is a degree of sensitivity to civil-nuclear collaboration between India and countries that are signatories of the NPT, which includes pretty much every other country. While having lunch at BARC with the lab’s new director, he made no mention of India’s weapons research as he listed the many basic science and other non-nuclear research taking place there.

Prototype Fast Breeder Reactor. Credit: IGCAR

Yet, gazing out of the window as we enjoyed a local interpretation of fish and chips, I could see – against a background of jungle and well-tended gardens leading out to the Arabian Sea – two large ageing nuclear reactors, one of which is to be shut at the end of this year as part of India’s commitment to separate its strategic and civilian nuclear programmes (a requirement of the US–India deal). I couldn’t help thinking how apt was the phrase “the elephant in the room”, as one UK nuclear physicist described the military dimension of nuclear technology to me.

But the thing that struck me overall while touring BARC and IGCAR was the sheer amount of effort involved to harness a new nuclear fuel cycle – an effort most deem too great at this time given the availability of and experience with uranium. I left IGCAR after being hurried past a blur of laboratories each piecing together a tiny aspect of Bhabha’s plan, from advanced welding joints to material irradiation tests.

In the back seat of the car bound for Chennai airport, I tore open some gift wrap to find that I was the proud new owner of a blue velvet box containing an ornament in the form of a large gold-coloured metal leaf. Lovely.

To read more, check out “Enter the thorium tiger” in the October issue of Physics World magazine, which can be downloaded free of charge via this link.

Matthew Chalmers is a freelance science writer in Bristol, UK

Credit: Official White House photo by Chuck Kennedy

By Matin Durrani

The Times newspaper has today drawn up a list of the UK’s “100 most important scientists”.

If you haven’t seen the list, which appears in the paper’s excellent Eureka! monthly science magazine, I can reveal that the list is topped by the Nobel-prize-winning geneticist Sir Paul Nurse, who discovered the genes that control cell division. The Times dubs him the UK’s “superman of science”.

Second up is Sir Mark Walport, director of the biomedical charity the Wellcome Trust, which doles out a tidy £600m a year on research. According to the paper, Walport “sports a moustache to rival the legendary handlebars” of the trust’s founder Sir Henry Wellcome.

And if you’re wondering if there are any physicists on the list, don’t worry: there are plenty. In third place is Stephen Hawking, who needs no introduction to readers, although in case you’re wondering, he’s the “cosmologist and best-selling author”.

The other physicists on the list are the president of the Royal Society Martin Rees (8th), who took part in a video interview last February, Andre Geim, who only two days ago won this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics for his discovery of graphene (9th) and Philip Campbell, editor of Nature and founding editor of Physics World magazine (13th). (Eureka! obviously went to press before Geim scooped the Nobel gong as the entry on him doesn’t mention the award. Still it shows the list can’t be totally unreliable.)

Next up, in 15th, is Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who last week completed her two-year term as the first female president of the Institute of Physics, which publishes

In 17th you’ve got Cambridge University physicist Richard Friend, the “plastic electronics pioneer” whose work on light-emitting polymers has “contributed more to our enjoyment of life than almost any living physicist”. Apparently.

Popping up in 18th is another Cambridge physicist – David Mackay, chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Department of Energy and Climate Change. In case you missed it, check out our review of Mackay’s excellent book on the energy challenge.

Next on the list is Brian Cox – Manchester University particle physicist and TV presenter – who is in the 25th spot. Cox is so well known he even featured in’s own April fool earlier this year.

Still in the top 30, we find “alien hunter” Paul Davies (27th), who wrote a great feature for us and presented a superb webinar on the search for extraterrestrial life earlier this year, followed by the Nobel-prize-winning Sir Peter Mansfield (28th), who co-invented MRI.

Further down is the science writer and libel-reform campaigner Simon Singh (33rd), Peter Higgs (34th), climate scientist Sir John Houghton (42nd) and the Imperial College London invisibility-cloak inventor Sir John Pendry (48th).

In 51st is entrepreneur and founder of Acorn Computers Hermann Hauser, followed by Tim Berners-Lee (52nd), optical-fibre expert David Payne (56th) and Steven Cowley (58th) – the head of the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy and author of an excellent article in the October issue of Physics World on the prospects for fusion.

I hope you’re not nodding off by now, but in 62nd is Imperial College’s Jim Virdee – spokesperson for the Large Hadron Collider’s massive CMS experiment and who features in this video. In 67th is Virdee’s Imperial colleague and all-round optics nice-guy Sir Peter Knight.

In 68th we find Lord John Browne – the former boss of oil giant BP turned “super adviser”, who wrote for us on the challenges of climate change. Cambridge University dark-matter expert George Efstathiou, meanwhile, is 69th, one place ahead of Robin Millar from the University of York in 70th, who is also the only science educator on the list and a winner of the Bragg medal of the Institute of Physics two years back.

Next up is Mark Welland, who makes an appearance in 85th as chief scientific adviser to the UK’s Ministry of Defence. Bringing up the rear in 99th is Steve Bramwell, “inventor of magnetricity” at the London Centre for Nanotechnology.

Right, and if you’re wondering who is responsible for this list, which no doubt you either strongly agree or disagree with, step forward The Times’ four-strong panel. It is made up of Cambridge University physicist Athene Donald (and my former PhD supervisor), ex-UK science minister William Waldegrave, Imperial College science-communication lecturer Alice Bell and former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris.

They ranked a list of top scientists from a long-list drawn up by The Times’ staff based on recommendations by the great and good in academia, business and public life.

So what do you think of the top 100? Comment below if you think the placings are all wrong, or if you think there is someone else from the physics community who should have made it onto the list. No doubt you’ll have your views.