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OPINION » INTERVIEW
Updated: November 14, 2013 02:17 IST

November 13, 2013
VIDEO

‘Research in India happens in a few elite institutions’
VASUDEVAN MUKUNTH
TOPICS applied science phy sics human interest award and prize science and technology research SHARE · COMMENT (9) · PRINT · T+

Interview with Professor Shiraz Naval Minwalla
Shiraz Naval Minwalla, a professor of theoretical physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai, won the New Horizons in Physics Prize for 2013 on November 5. The $100,000 prize, which recognises “promising researchers,” is awarded by the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, which was set up by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner in 2012. Dr. Minwalla has been cited for his contributions to the study of string theory and quantum field theory, especially in improving our understanding of the equations governing fluid dynamics, and using them to verify the predictions of all quantum field theories as opposed to a limited class of theories before. On November 12, he was also awarded the Infosys Foundation Prize in the physical sciences category. Here are excerpts from an interview done on Tuesday with Vasudevan Mukunth, through Skype.

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Why do you work with string theory and quantum field theory? Why are you interested in these subjects? Because it seems like one of the roads to completing one element of the unfinished task of physics. In the last century, there have been two big developments in physic. The quantum revolution, which established the language of quantum mechanics for dealing with physical systems, and the general theory of relativity, which established the dynamic nature of spacetime as reality in the world and realized it was responsible for gravity. These two paradigms have been incredibly successful in their domains of applicability. Quantum theory is ubiquitous in physics, and is also the basis for theories of elementary particle physics. The general relativity way of thinking has been successful with astrophysics and cosmology, i.e. successful at larger scales. These paradigms have been individually confirmed and individually very successful, yet we have no way of putting them together, no single mathematically consistent framework. This is why I work with string theory and quantum field theory because I think it is the correct path to realize a unified theory quantum of gravity. What’s the nature of your work that has snagged the New Horizons Prize? Could you describe it in simpler terms? The context for this discussion is the AdS/CFT correspondence of string theory. AdS/CFT asserts that certain conformal quantum field theories admit a reformulation as higher dimensional theories of gravity under appropriate circumstances. Now it has long been expected that the dynamics of any quantum field theory reduces, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics. If you put these two statements together it should follow that Einstein’s equations of gravity reduce, under appropriate circumstances, to the equations of hydrodynamics. My collaborators and I were able to directly verify this expectation. The equations of hydrodynamics that Einstein’s equations reduce have particular values of transport coefficients. And there was a surprise here. It turns out that the equations charged relativistic hydrodynamics that came out of this procedure were slightly different in form from those listed in textbooks on the subject, like the text of (Lev) Landau and (Evgeny) Lifshitz. The resolution of this apparent paradox was obtained by (Dam) Son and (Piotr) Surowka and in subsequent work, where it was demonstrated that the textbook expectations for the equations of hydrodynamics are incomplete. The correct equations sometimes have more terms, in agreement with our constructions. The improved understanding of the equations of hydrodynamics is general in nature; it applies to all quantum field theories, including those like quantum chromodynamics that are of interest to real world experiments. I think this is a good (though minor) example of the impact of string theory on experiments. At our current stage of understanding of string theory, we can effectively do calculations only in particularly simple - particularly symmetric - theories. But we are able to analyse these theories very completely; do the calculations completely correctly. We can then use these calculations to test various general predictions about the behaviour of all quantum field theories. These expectations sometimes turn out to be incorrect. With the string calculations to guide you can then correct these predictions. The corrected general expectations then apply to all quantum field theories, not just those very symmetric ones that string theory is able to analyse in detail.
http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/interview/research-in-india-happens-in-a-few-elite-institutions/article5347654.ece

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But if you compared it to Japan’s output. This is his gesture. he wanted to bridge these worlds. But in the last five years. some small groups in the Chennai Mathematical Institute.? It pads up my CV. but that should be the aim. of course. Institute of Mathematical Sciences. TIFR and the Harish-Chandra Research Institute (HRI) have good research groups.The Hindu 1/18/2014 How do you see the Prize helping your research work? Does this make it easier for you to secure grants. I feel that places with the kind of rock-solid support that TIFR gives its faculty http://www. For instance. but I’m also a little overwhelmed. Second: He felt that 70 or 80 years ago. Milner was a PhD student in physics before he left the field to invest in the Internet. He said he left because he felt he wasn’t good enough to do important work. IIT-Kanpur. there are some reasonably good young groups in Indian Institute of Science (IIS). but at the same time not comparable to the EU’s as a whole. Some of the money could have gone as grants. Given that and the fact that India is a very poor country. (After being asked about winning the Infosys Foundation Prize) I’m thrilled. It’s a great honour. It’s just one reason: that the elementary school system in the country is abysmal. there are no such people. He said one motivation was that people who are doing well needn’t found Internet companies. Milner wants to do what he can to push the clock back on that. Is there sufficient institutional and governmental support for researchers? At the top levels. IIT-Madras. Most Indians come out of school unable to contribute meaningfully to any intellectual activity. If I had a lot of money. of late. I would say it’s clear that India does better. where there are many groups in many universities. There are 1. yes. though. it is nice to see there are other people who think differently. Japan has a large string theory community supported by American-style salaries whereas India runs on a shoestring. Nowadays. it’s spreading out. it has become fashionable sometimes to attack string theory in certain parts of the world of physics. We shouldn’t content ourselves by thinking we’re doing better than (South) Korea. more smaller prizes for younger people makes more sense than few big prizes for well established people. So you get an idea of the scale: reasonably good. But I’m quite motivated without that. but it won’t have a transformative impact on my career nor influence it in any way. For example. There’s no other country with a GDP per capita comparable to India’s whose string theoretic output is anywhere as good. The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER). The fact is Milner didn’t have to do this but he did. The first thing to say is when Milner explained to me his motivations in constituting this prize. The good thing is young people are being hired in many good places. the work emerging from the US is way ahead qualitatively. has also made good hires in string theory. and then extrapolate. (Laughs) So… anything I apply for henceforth becomes a little more likely to work out. I think I agree. Such an obvious thing but we don’t do it. In fact. Even Indian colleges have the same quality of output. at TIFR. which gives the community great depth of research. What are your thoughts on the quality of physics research stemming from India? Are there enough opportunities for researchers at all levels of their careers? Let me start with string theoretic work. Chennai. one should respect that. What do you think about the Fundamental Physics Prize in general? About what Yuri Milner has done for the world of physics research? Until last week. IIT-Bombay. frankly.2 billion people in the country. so we should be producing commensurate output in research. it’s an encouragement. There are many more efficient ways.thehindu. etc. we find that we usually have very few really good candidates. What is striking is we don’t yet have participation from universities. I understood it. In such an environment. when we interview students for admission. So. not fantastic. Bengaluru. Let me explain.ece 2/4 . It makes me happy. About being young — I hope this means that my best work is ahead of me. This is in striking contrast with the US. Delhi University has a few. there are no string theorists in non-elite institutions.‘Research in India happens in a few elite institutions’ . The obvious thing is to make every school in India a reasonable school (laughs). Third: Milner is uniquely well-positioned because he understands physics research because of his own background and he understands the world of business. this isn’t the way I would have gone about it. physicists were celebrities who played a large role in motivating some young people to do science. The striking weakness of research in India is that research happens by and large only in a few elite institutions. very few. Pune. I haven’t seriously thought about this. If you compared the output from India to the US. I’d say not bad but could do much better. All these are reasonable ways of looking at the world. and I’m glad. that’s quite remarkable. which I’m aware of. As you know. So. This is his personal opinion. etc. Of course it is an unfair thing to ask for. all growing in strength. I hope I live up to all the expectations. String theory work done in India is pretty good. If I were to give Indian research a grade sheet. the output is better than any country in the European Union. people are smart everywhere. Are the Fundamental Physics Prizes in any way bringing “validity” to your areas of research? Are they bringing more favourable attention you wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise? Well.com/opinion/interview/research-in-india-happens-in-a-few-elite-institutions/article5347654. it has been broadening out a bit. It’s not that they aren’t smart. It’s a good thing. I hadn’t thought about it very much at all.

Genuine. Until the school and college education standards are improved from rote learning to analytical learning a large base of potential future researchers are not prepared. In the US many such places exist. employment continuance is based on papers published in reputed journals. as I mentioned. As the Scientific environment is missing . 2013 at 17:40 IST Lets face it. Why do you think that is? There are two immediate responses.000? I haven’t seriously thought about it. By and large science/knowledge grows incrementally and not exponentially. this is true for most universities around the world. for as long as the Foundation has focused on the mathematics in physics. 2013 at 10:49 IST Then I guess. from: ANIL Posted on: Nov 14. from: parimal a. the only comparable places are perhaps Cambridge and Oxford. one can say that the Department of Science & Technology. New Horizons in Physics Prize. Yuri Milner. Infosys Foundation Prize View comments(9) MORE IN: Interview | Opinion | Op-Ed Like 1.com/opinion/interview/research-in-india-happens-in-a-few-elite-institutions/article5347654. And the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation has so far had some focus on this. In fact. It is possible that India can catch up. we’ve had a stubborn no-show since Subramanyan Chandrasekhar won it in 1983. elite Institutes. Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.S. research community has got so good because of its depth.R.thehindu. innovation rewarded and plagiarism punished without mercy. The Nobel Prizes on the other hand require experimental verification of hypotheses. Institutions like TIFR. parikh Posted on: Nov 15. closed mindedness and unable to question and do independant thinking. which is possible but rarely produced in India. from: DR. exciting research is not done just in the Ivy League institutions. No short cuts will work. rather than flocking together in engineering and medical colleges and cramming for grades. So. But if you went to the UK.ece 3/4 . I would say the most important region India has not developed as a country as a whole. There are few comparable places in the Third World. 2013 at 14:42 IST Research in India is to find employment for the few. The U. India may have lots of universities but they are somehow not able to produce good work. We’ve had a couple Indians already in what’s going to be three years of the Fundamental Physics Prizes — before you. 2013 at 21:03 IST Hearty Congratulations to Prof Shiraz Minwalla. you’ll see it’s not as good a place to be as TIFR. but only if long term road maps are laid and implemented timely. this data is used by others in developed countries to make it useful. Keywords: Shiraz Naval Minwalla. Indians working abroad produce quality scientific output.VENKATARMAN Posted on: Nov 14. IIS. India has an anomalously strong string theory presence. 2013 at 12:59 IST http://www. A general improvement in the depth of research in all universities will ultimately be needed if India is to be reckoned as a force in science. we should encourage our children more to pursue science and knowledge in general. HRI and the National Centre for the Biological Sciences give good support and scientists should recognise this. from: Sridhar Posted on: Nov 14. Government of India cannot and does not wish to see beyond IITs/IISc/IISER. India is especially strong with string theory. Whereas if you went to the second tier Durham University. etc. But in the Nobel Prizes in physics.7m Like Share Like 518 Share 61 COMMENTS(9) RECOMMENDED POST A COMMENT As a quick response. because they are able to work amongst the top brains in the field with good support. from: Contrarian Posted on: Nov 14. is bad parenting. What we’re missing however is the depth.This is how India is providing aid to developed countries. First is that. India has done well. Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation. What are you going to do with your $100.The Hindu 1/18/2014 are few and far between.‘Research in India happens in a few elite institutions’ . Why? I don’t know. Research should be encouraged. Even small places have a Nobel Laureate teaching there. Ministry of Science. So. there was Ashoke Sen. STOP THIS SHAM PLEASE.

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