The mistrust of science

G. Moorthy

G. Moorthy  

Despite assurances that it is safe, the India-based Neutrino Observatory project continues to hit roadblocks

The National Green Tribunal on March 20 placed in abeyance the environmental clearance given to the India-based Neutrino Observatory (INO) which was to come up in the West Bodi Hills in Theni district in Tamil Nadu. This was in view of the objection raised by an environmentalist group regarding the distance of the project from a wildlife sanctuary. Initially slated to come up near Masinagudi, the project was moved to Theni because of objections that it was close to an elephant corridor. Ever since the INO got approval from the Ministry of Science and Technology, it has been drawing flak from activists despite repeated assurances from scientists that it is unlikely to harm the environment or affect the livelihoods of the people around the site.

While environmental issues, if they do exist, must be tackled with utmost care, at the heart of these objections is also fear and mistrust of science and scientists.

Doubts range from questions of safety to the questionable potential for application of neutrino physics. Are neutrinos likely to harm people when they strike them? Will the tunnels made for the observatory be used to store nuclear waste, given that the Department of Atomic Energy is funding the research? These and other questions have been addressed and answered in the negative by scientists. It is a fact that neutrinos from the sun are falling on us by the trillions every second. As for nuclear waste, storing radiating material will spoil all the chances of detecting neutrinos, which interact rarely.

Usefulness of scientific research

This brings us to the usefulness of research. Basic science faces many questions today, and the hardest relates to its usefulness. If Newton had pursued strictly utilitarian research, he may never have sat under that apple tree and discovered the laws of gravitation. This means mechanics as we know it would not have existed — no cars, artificial satellites, or elevators. Srinivasa Ramanujan’s equations are being used to study black holes today. Did he even envisage this when he wrote them?

We cannot say at the point of invention how useful a discovery will be. Yet, we can certainly imagine and speculate how useful the science may be. Former President Abdul Kalam had written in this newspaper about how neutrinos could be used to sniff out signs of nuclear proliferation from a remote location. Also, with respect to dark matter — a hitherto undetected form which, along with dark energy, is believed to constitute 95% of the universe — he guessed how neutrinos could help in this search.

Additionally, there is the growing field of neutrino astronomy. Just like we have optical and radio astronomy, which reveal to us certain zones and constituents of the universe, we can literally widen our horizons with neutrino astronomy. Like radio astronomy, neutrinos can reveal exotic facets of the universe.

The INO project is good old science; rather than shying away from it, we must embrace it and assert our stake in it.

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