Rajivalochan Subramaniam found that his real goal actually lay in high energy physics. Here's how he found it.

Born and brought up at West Mambalam in Chennai, Rajivalochan Subramaniam considered himself a failure at a U.S. university before rediscovering himself in the field of high energy physics. A Ph.D was once a distant dream for Rajiv. It is the support of his father A. Subramanian, a retired government officer, and mother Latha and his grandparents, that has enabled him to pursue his dream at CERN, Geneva.

After schooling at Sri Sitaram Vidyalaya (2001) and Shri Ahobila Mutt Oriental School (2003) in West Mambalam, where he grew up on mathematics, he studied Electrical and Electronics Engineering at the Bannari Amman Institute of Technology at Sathyamangalam. His final-year project was funded by the Tamil Nadu State Council for Science and Technology in 2007.

In August 2008, Rajiv joined the Electrical Engineering Master’s programme at Louisiana Tech University, USA, where he got partial scholarship.

In the U.S., there is an option to design one’s master’s curriculum, and Rajiv chose a combination of research and academics. “A majority of Indian students at the university chose the academics option as most of them are interested in a job. Having made a tough decision, I struggled during my first year of MS,” he says. The open book tests were more difficult than the closed book ones and the research work in electrodynamics made no sense to him. After nine months he quit that research, realising he was not cut out for electrodynamics. This statement of Einstein came to his mind then: Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid. “One year on American soil ended in the Fall of 2009. All of my educational loan was spent and I was depleted financially and morally. My self-confidence was very low during this time as I considered myself a failure,” recalls Rajiv.

It was during this hard period that he met his current adviser/professor Dr. Markus Wobisch who is involved in high energy physics. At that time he did not know that his life was going to change. Prof. Wobisch was working with the U.S. Fermi National Lab located in Chicago and Rajiv’s electrical background was good for high energy physics research. “Even for the very minor results that I showed him, he encouraged me to such an extent that I really gained confidence in life.”

This moral support pushed him to become a successful Ph.D student. Seeing his progress, the department chair, Dr. Lee Sawyer decided to involve him in mankind’s biggest collaborative experiment, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). And that is how he started working at the ATLAS detector at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN), Geneva, exactly two years before the discovery of the Higgs boson-like particle.

In July 2010, he arrived at CERN. CERN is an underground lab which spans the Franco-Swiss border with a circumference of 27 km and is 100 metres under the ground.

At CERN, students, academicians and scientists do collaborative work for common goals. CERN tries to answer fundamental questions about the universe. The Standard Model is a basic model in modern physics. It lists and classifies all fundamental particles and forces, many of which were discovered at CERN. There were many parallel experiments at CERN and one of the main goals was to search for the Higgs boson.

The universe is filled with a field called the Higgs Field and the particles of the field are called Higgs bosons. Assume that a swimming pool is the universe and a HO molecule is equivalent to a Higgs Boson. As you cannot see water molecule in a swimming pool you cannot see the Higgs boson in the Higgs Field.

About 48 years ago, Peter Higgs and a few other scientists postulated this theory. The mathematics behind the theory was so wonderful that people started liking it .When most scientists agreed on the idea and were able to convince governments, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) experiment came to life in 1990.

The Indian government has spent USD 40 million for the experiment and about 100 Indians have played a substantial role in the experiment. The total budget of the project is $10 billion. It took 20 years of hard work by over 10,000 scientists around the world to build these pyramids of the 21st Century. Along with students from India, other Indians studying in the U.S. and universities around the world also contribute to a great extent.

“After years of hard work we started taking data in 2010 March. By the end of 2011, there was no success but we got a few hints about the mass of the particle. In 2012 March-June, we started seeing positive results,” says Rajiv who personally contributed by selecting the interesting data to be recorded for detailed study, called “trigger system” in scientific terms.


A Chennai link to the boson storyJuly 16, 2012