Nobel laureate Serge Haroche on how India can better harness its science prowess

"The scientists who made these discoveries had no idea what they would be useful for," a smiling Serge Haroche said, pointing to a slide with the faces and discoveries of Isaac Newton, James Maxwell and half a dozen other legendary physicists from past centuries pasted on it. Haroche, a Nobel laureate himself, wasn't speaking to his usual audience of masters students; he was speaking to a motley crowd of scientists, students and laypersons at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay on the connection between blue-sky research and innovation.

The Nobel Prize Series India 2018, "which is part of the outreach we do at the Nobel Foundation, is about bringing science knowledge to the word, sharing all the exquisite experience and knowledge that our Nobel laureates have," Laura Sprechmann, Deputy CEO of Nobel Media, said. "It’s also very much about making you think, and making you ask questions, and making you want to ask even more questions." Saturday's lecture was about changing priorities of basic science research at a time when innovation and technology are inextricably linked to it.

Haroche shows the crowd a postcard from the early 20th century, and calls it "naive 1900 predictions about technologies in the year 2000". "And how wrong they were!" he says, as he explains that technologies such as the modern computer, atomic clocks, lasers and MRI scanners were unimaginable a century ago. An unassuming, curiosity-driven experiment by German-American physicist Otto Stern in 1922, which developed the concept of spin magnetic moment, eventually led to all four innovations I mentioned, Haroche says.

"So what will happen in the future? We are now in what we call the second quantum revolution. Will the future be a quantum computer, will it be quantum communication networks, or maybe something else quite unexpected? Niels Bohr said, 'It's hard to make predictions — especially about the future.'

We can only be sure of one thing: Without basic research, great technologies cannot be invented. History teaches us that wonderful applications often emerge in unexpected ways from blue-sky research."

Professor Serge Haroche in Mumbai on Saturday. Firstpost/Rishiraj Bhagawati

Professor Serge Haroche in Mumbai on Saturday. All photographs taken by the writer

In 2012, Haroche won the Nobel Prize in Physics along with American physicist David J Wineland "for ground-breaking experimental methods that enable measuring and manipulation of individual quantum systems". He is now the chair of Quantum Physics at the Collège de France and engages in outreach efforts across the globe. "I tried to memorise all your merits before (this speech), but I failed because they are way too many," Sprechmann said before introducing Haroche on stage on Saturday.

However, when Haroche started his research in the 1960s, resources were fewer ("I began at an era before lasers — can you imagine!") and funding was difficult to arrange. It is in these situations, Haroche stresses, that the "environment" becomes critical. "It helps to do research in the right environment, with outstanding masters, colleagues and students. My own experience tells me that."

Pointing at a picture of his laboratory from 1966, he tells the crowd with pride that three of the six gentlemen posing before the camera went on to win Nobel prizes later in life. "Three Nobel prizes came from this group, because of one big element we had here: the element of trust, added with the freedom of thought and freedom of research."

Responding to a question from the audience, Haroche agreed that arranging funds for long-term research is a significant problem even today. "Even if you do get money for basic sciences, you are asked to fill forms where you must say what you will achieve in two, three, four or five years from now — which by definition is the opposite of the scientific method. You cannot predict what the result would be. If you could, it wouldn’t be a discovery, but merely a confirmation.

It is unfortunate that we are only subjected to the law of the market, which is to produce fast and under contract. 'Fast' is against time, and 'contract' is against trust; and I think the two ingredients you need most for good basic sciences go for a toss here."

Getting the funds cannot be the goal, Haroche warns, as he gives the example of China. "China is putting huge amounts of money into research and development. But I think money is not enough. It’s not because you put 1,000 times more money, you’ll get even twice the quality of results. You need freedom of thought and independent minds."

In a country like China, Haroche says the youngsters are "too obedient, and too much submitted to the authority of older people. This is not very good for science." Although a democracy like India still has to avoid a lot of problems, it has at least one advantage over China: "Your people here are freer to express themselves and find their ways to do independent research."

"China is putting a huge amount of money into science research. Money is not enough. It’s not because you put 1,000 times more money, you’ll get even twice the quality of results you get presently," Haroche said. Firstpost/Rishiraj Bhagawati

"China is putting a huge amount of money into science research. Money is not enough. It’s not because you put 1,000 times more money, you’ll get even twice the quality of results you get presently," Haroche said

To avoid being misconstrued, Haroche quickly adds, "But even for that, you need a minimum amount of money." The government has to understand that you have to invest in science, but before doing that, you need to invest in general education, he says. "Because the scientists of tomorrow are the young students of today."

Haroche takes a look at the crowd before saying in his French accent, "But it seems to me that all of you are already convinced. I don't see any politicians here."

In January, Minister of State for Human Resource Development Satyapal Singh claimed that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution of man was "scientifically wrong", and it needs to be changed in school and college curricula. "Since the man was seen on Earth, he has always been a man. Nobody, including our ancestors, in written or oral, have said they saw an ape turning into a man. No books we have read or the tales told to us by our grandparents had such a mention," Singh had said.

In a separate interview with Firstpost after his lecture on Saturday, Haroche sighs at the mention of this. "Ah, it is very sad that you have these kind of things, and I know that the same kind of things happen in the United States, with the Trump presidency and the theory of evolution being challenged in many states.

I think it is terrible that you have a confusion between science and religion, the fact that the scientific method is not accepted even when it is based on proof and subjected to be falsified all the time. Whereas religious beliefs are based on faith and scriptures, and are not subjected to any discussion. I think that is very bad."

When mentioned that ministers like Singh are in positions of power and can directly influence school syllabi, Haroche said, "I think it is something very worrying because the solution to our problems will come from science, and not from religion. If someone who says things like that is in charge of education, you have a big problem."

Does that affect government funding for tertiary research? "Of course it has an effect. Even beyond research funding, the fact that this kind of philosophy is permeating in the government, is something that means that you’re not going to be ready to face the issues the right way. The media has to fight that, and you must have politicians who are against that trying to be elected."

The media, Haroche says, has to play a more proactive role in today's times. "I think there are a few good programmes in BBC or PBS which promote some areas of research, but in my country France, I think it is still lacking. I don’t know how it is in India — I can see that you’re trying to do that job right now," he laughs.

Convincing politicians, with or without the media, is difficult around the world, but Haroche says he has his own ways. "When I meet French politicians, I tell them we need one billion euros per year develop science research in the country. One billion seems like a lot, but if you think about a country like France, where we aren’t as numerous as India with only about 60 million people, it is alright. Here's how:

You take all the grownups; let’s say half of this population. Then you see how much they spend on one cup of coffee per month. One cup of coffee per month for 40 million people makes one billion at the end of the year. So, extrapolate for India, you will see that a cup of tea can solve all your problems!" We have to go back to a time when the politicians and the government understand that long-term commitment to research is important, Haroche says. "This is true in general, but this is also true also in matters such as climate change. Climate change is something that will occur over decades. And I’m afraid that politicians — and I’m not talking only about the crazy politicians — don’t understand that. They are worrying about their reelection two or four years from now, but don’t care too much about what will happen 50 years from now."

When asked if his life changed after the Nobel Prize in any way, Haroche pauses before saying, "Oh it has changed a lot. Now I am invited and asked to talk about my research. In fact, this is my fifth time in India."

The field of his research, too, has evolved since his award. "The field is thriving. Quantum technology is trying to use non-classical features of quantum physics to achieve useful tasks. Everybody talks about the quantum computer, which is still far away, but there are other applications like quantum simulator, quantum communication, quantum measurements — measurements using quantum phenomena to measure things with higher sensitivity. The field is active."

So is the Nobel Prize still as significant as it used to be? "I think the Nobel Prize is doing a good job. It is the only time that most papers are talking about science, so it is a unique opportunity to bring science to people who don’t usually think about it. For instance, last year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was given for the discovery of gravitational waves, which opens a new window to the universe. These are basic sciences, blue-sky research which do not have direct applications — I think it is very good that a lot of people are exposed to this kind of science."

As my interview drew to a close, I asked what India needs to improve the scope of fundamental scientific research. Haroche said, "What a country like India needs is money to do research at a smaller scale, have centres of excellence which develop small scale physics, which costs much less money than big projects. You also need to have focus on primary and middle school education, but for that the government needs to understand that education is essential, and will yield long-term benefits.

And of course you need teachers who educate in the right spirit, like teach Darwinism instead of Creationism and so on."

Updated Date: Feb 06, 2018 21:13 PM

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