Thursday, June 20, 2024

Science for all: On the road ahead for the LIGO-India project

The Union Cabinet’s approval to set up a gravitational-wave detection facility in Maharashtra, a ₹2,600 crore project, is one that will consist of a detector called the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), to be built in the image of the twin LIGO instruments already operational in the U.S. Their detection of gravitational waves, in 2016, launched a new era of astronomy. A third detector is being built in India as part of the LIGO-India collaboration in order to improve the detectors’ collective ability to pinpoint sources of gravitational waves in the sky. The Cabinet’s approval throws up two opportunities: first, India could become a global site of gravitational physics research, aiding training and the handling of precision technologies and sophisticated control systems, ultimately, cementing a reputation for successfully running an experimental Big Science project. The starting requirement here is the timely release of funds for construction, followed by issuing the allocated resources without delay.

Second, LIGO-India can demonstrate an ability to reckon intelligently with Indian society’s relationship with science, using the opportunities that Big Science affords. India has had a contested relationship with such projects, including, recently, the Challakere Science City and the stalled India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO). They need large land tracts, with inevitable implications for land-use change. Contests over land rights, against the backdrop of the sustainable use of natural resources, carbon sequestration targets, just transitions, and human rights, recall the interplay between the history of science and settler colonialism — an example is Hawaii’s Thirty Meter Telescope, to be built on land the locals hold sacred. One contention there was that the land had been rendered physically inaccessible, and that “science had become an agent of colonisation”, to quote science historian Leandra Swanner. A similar criticism has trailed experimental Big Science undertakings, including the INO, in the economically developing world: that they are far removed from the concerns of the majority. Shakier though this latter argument may be, such undertakings still have a responsibility to define their public value, beyond benefits to national industry and research. This is the second opportunity LIGO-India has, amplified by the context of the present moment: to build a facility that contributes to the communities from which it requires sustenance and knowledge, engage in good faith on concerns about access to land and other resources, and conduct public outreach on a par with the international LIGO Scientific Collaboration. The starting requirement is to contemplate what all LIGO-India can do for India.

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