The ambitious plan to make India the new center of the experimental physics world
In 2016, a week after scientists in the US clinked champagne glasses to celebrate the monumental discovery of gravitational waves in February, an Indian physicist slowly paced across his office in Bangalore, sitting at his desk then standing back, bouncing around with nervous energy. Bala Iyer’s eyes flickered between his phone and computer, cycling between news sites, searching for the announcement he’d been waiting for over the past two decades. A few minutes later, an online alert finally put an end to his wait. The Narendra Modi government had given the green light for a massive project: the construction of a gravitational wave observatory in India.
Iyer couldn’t believe it at first. “I was still dazed, so I got my younger colleagues to reconfirm the news,” he says. But it was true: the Indian government “in principle” approved an estimated budget of $201 million for building an advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) on home soil.
Iyer’s dream to bring the experiment to his motherland began in the 1980s, when a small group of Indian physicists led by Sanjeev Dhurandhar first made the case for a gravitational wave observatory. The arguments were met with silence from the government and other organizations that might have had the power or deep pockets to make such a project happen. Without support or funding, Dhurandhar and Iyer went back to their research. In 1989, Iyer spent a sabbatical interning with renowned French theorists Thibault Damour and Luc Blanchet, working on calculating the nature of gravitational waves using Einstein’s theory of general relativity. He eventually became a part of the scientific group that, in 2016, detected the first gravitational waves on earth, an experimental proof of Einstein’s century-old equations.