Vaiko has a problem with the unmanned, fully automated neutrino observatory

Imagine a vast research facility situated below a hill – fully underground – hosting a massive particle detector made up of the world’s largest electromagnet and some 30,000 metal plates. Embracing this device is a magnetic field 35,000 times as strong as Earth’s, not to mention more than three million electronic channels carrying signals to and from computers monitoring the device. The facility will also house multiple other systems to process and analyze the measurements the detector will take (of neutrinos), and to support other particles physics experiments, including one to find signs of dark matter in the universe. The entire thing will cost Rs 1,500 crore and take six years to build.

Its most distinctive attribute? The entire thing is one big robot, completely unmanned with everything automated. The machine’s surfaces are all self-cleaning; the computers will power themselves on and off – as well as manage the particle detector – according to programs that have already been fed to them; the electromagnet will maintain itself. When important observations are made, the computers will process the data; write out the papers (with a little humor to taste); submit them to whatever journals (and upload a copy in the national OA repository); share the data with collaborating institutions; have the results corroborated by independent research teams; move on to the next experiment. All this guzzling power from the grid and promising nothing in return forever.

At least, this is Tamil Nadu politician Vaiko’s vision of the India-based Neutrino Observatory. After the INO received approval from the Prime Minister’s Office on January 5, Vaiko told the press on January 6:

… the neutrino project is not an industry, which would generate employment to the people in that area, but an institution to carry out research only.


His bigger point was that the INO should be scrapped because it would affect the environment in the area it’s coming up in: the West Bodi Hills, Theni district. The observatory requires a substantial shield to keep out all particles but neutrinos from the detector, and achieving this is easier under more than a mile’s worth of rock.

That said, Vaiko should acquaint himself with what happened in the months leading up to the approval. The scientists from the Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Chennai, and Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, spent time among the people living around the hill, addressing their questions – from where debris from the construction of the underground cavern would be dumped to where the scientists’ facilities would get their water from to what kind of experiments would be conducted at the INO.

In fact, in 2009, the national UPA government had refused to allow the INO to set up shop in Nilgiris district – the first finalized location – over environmental concerns, and suggested the present location near the Suruliyar Falls. In 2012, members of the collaboration from IMSc told me that the roads leading to and from the two entrances to the cavern would not be laid in straight lines through the surrounding forests en route to Madurai (110 km away) but only through the least densely populated areas – both by people and animals. They also told me that the land acquired for the project was not agricultural land (and it had been acquired before the land acquisition laws were diluted).

Beyond this point, I have only one suggestion for Vaiko: How about calling for scrapping the INO before its Cabinet clearance comes through? But on the upside, I am glad he’s not on the same page as VS Achuthanandan. Or as VT Padmanabhan.