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Indians at the cutting edge

High society and high science mingled at a soiree in London held for the new Indian High Commissioner to the UK, Ranjan Mathai

After a two-year stint as India’s Foreign Secretary, Ranjan Mathai, 62, is now High Commissioner in London. As someone who has also served as Indian ambassador in Israel, Qatar and France and as deputy high commissioner in London from August 2005 to January 2007, there are few people better qualified to comment on the links between “Mother India” and her 30-million-strong diaspora spread across the world.

Former Foreign Secretary and now Indian High Commissioner to the UK Ranjan Mathai. Pics/Raj D Bakrania
Former Foreign Secretary and now Indian High Commissioner to the UK Ranjan Mathai. Pics/Raj D Bakrania

On UK-India relations, Mathai has pointed out that the understanding between the two is so close that “we have come to take for granted a level of cooperation and a level of mutual understanding of each other’s concerns, each other’s interests which would have been remarkable even 10 years ago”. Mathai was addressing leading members of the Indian community at a “welcome” dinner hosted on Monday by the Indian Journalists’ Association at the Chakra Indian restaurant in Notting Hill Gate, West London.

Ranjan Mathai (left) chats to David Landsman, director, Tata, and head of all the Tata companies in the UK, and his wife, Catherine
Ranjan Mathai (left) chats to David Landsman, director, Tata, and head of all the Tata companies in the UK, and his wife, Catherine

He emphasised that while India-China bilateral trade stood at $60billion, between India and the UK, the figure was only $15 billion and the two prime ministers, David Cameron and Manmohan Singh, were trying to raise the level to $18bn-$20bn. Some of the “most significant developments” between India and the UK had taken place in the fields of education, culture, communications, science and technology - “it is an extraordinary story”.

Ranjan Mathai (right) greets (from left) journalists Kounteya Sinha, Batuk Gathani and author Anita Raghavan, who has written The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of The Indian-American Elite and The Fall of The Galleon Hedge Fund
Ranjan Mathai (right) greets (from left) journalists Kounteya Sinha, Batuk Gathani and author Anita Raghavan, who has written The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of The Indian-American Elite and The Fall of The Galleon Hedge Fund

Serious initiative
Mathai had high hopes for the Bangalore-Mumbai Economic Corridor. “It is a very serious path-breaking initiative which has been taken between our two countries,” he said. “It is not merely a corridor linking our two cities - it is for the first time a new way of thinking, of how to increase investments, how to increase the interactions in a globalised India. I am looking forward to the day when we will be able to go ahead with some really important projects in the years to come.”

Professor Tejinder Virdee speaks of the hunt for the Higgs Boson particle in which he has had a big hand
Professor Tejinder Virdee speaks of the hunt for the Higgs Boson particle in which he has had a big hand

“What I am saying is (while) the future is bright, there is much that remains to be done but together we can get there,” the High Commissioner predicted. He paid warm tribute to Indians in Britain and said that it is partly because of their efforts that India is “now an actor like other major actors on the world stage”.

Lord Swraj Paul (left), head of the Caparo group, with Tejinder Virdee, Professor of Physics at Imperial College, London
Lord Swraj Paul (left), head of the Caparo group, with Tejinder Virdee, Professor of Physics at Imperial College, London

“Looking at the world from India, do recognise that India has come of age,” added Mathai, who took over as High Commissioner in succession to Dr Jaimini Bhagwati, who is expecting to stand for the Congress Party in the Lok Sabha polls from Tezpur in Assam.

Baroness Usha Prashar (left) with deputy High Commissioner Dr Virander Paul
Baroness Usha Prashar (left) with deputy High Commissioner Dr Virander Paul

Who’s who
Apart from a large turnout by Indian journalists, the audience was a microcosm of the Indian who’s who of Britain. For example, there was Lord Swraj Paul, chairman of the Caparo steel and automotive group, and Lady Aruna Paul; Lord Navnit Dholakia, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, and his wife, Lady Ann Dholakia; Baroness Usha Prashar and her lawyer husband Vijay Sharma; and Lord Karan Bilimoria, the founder of Cobra Beer.

From the House of Commons, there were Labour MPs Virendra Sharma (Ealing Southall) and Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) and the Tory Alok Sharma (Reading West). There were captains of industry -Dr Kartar Lalvani, of Vitabiotics, and his wife, Rohini (the couple have just returned from a seven week holiday in Mumbai where they have an apartment); and Sanjay Hinduja, representing the Hinduja group (Sanjay was the one who headed his family’s $1.1billion acquisition of the Houghton International lubricants group in America).

Authors included Anita Raghavan (The Billionaire’s Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund, which was shortlisted for the Financial Times/Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award), and Abir Mukherjee, who recently won The Daily Telegraph crime fiction award for A Rising Man. Well known psychiatrist Dr Raj Persaud also came with his wife, Francesa Cordeiro, an award winning eye specialist.

There were some English guests, too. The Tata group was represented by its executive director, David Landsman, who came with his wife, Catherine - Landsman, a former British diplomat has succeeded Anwar Hasan.
From Cambridge University, there was Tim Holt, head of communications (he visits India annually with his Vice Chancellor); and from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Giles Thomson, head of the South Asia Department.

Immense pride
Mathai acknowledged: “For us coming here and working in the High Commission to see what Indians have achieved not only here but globally is what gives us immense pride and happiness.” He spoke of Indian achievement in science.

“I was immensely proud while in France (as Indian ambassador) of the fact that India is one of only six countries or associations of countries which are going to be to be involved in what is most path breaking fusion energy research at Cadarache (in France)...we are very hopeful that India would formally join the CERN project (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research). We know that as a government we may not have joined, persons of Indian origin are already involved and that is a matter of infinite pride for us.”

This was an appropriate comment because also in the audience was one of the leading physicists in the world - Professor Tejinder Virdee, 61, a key figure in the hunt for the Higgs Boson fundamental particle. Virdee, a Sikh, was born in Kenya and came to Britain at the age of 15.

The discovery of the Higgs Boson in July 2012 at CERN in Geneva shook the world of science. This is where Virdee is based and where he set up an experiment known as the CMS (Compact Muon Solenoid) in the Large Hadron Collidor, the 27km ring located 100 metres below the Swiss and French borders.

“First of all what is a Higgs Boson?” began Virdee, who is also professor of physics at Imperial College London. “Now there are two words there - Higgs and Boson,” he remarked. “The Boson is named after the Indian physicist Satyendra (Nath) Bose so it is a class of particle.... Bosons are fundamental particles which explain how interactions take place, how the universe works, in fact.”

The reference to S N Bose provoked the High Commissioner to say: “While Nobel Prizes sometimes follow great achievement there is a lingering sense among some of us in India that maybe Prof S N Bose should really have got the Nobel (Prize). .... When the Higgs Boson and its validation came through this story was revived.”

Big Bang
Virdee played a crucial role in the discovery of the Higgs Boson because he led the team that took two decades to build a special camera which could take photographs when protons collided inside the Large Hadron Collider.

“I would like to take you back to the ‘Big Bang’ some 13.6 billion years ago,” he mused. “What would we have seen happening in our universe a brief moment after the ‘Big Bang’? So imagine that at that moment you just happen to have the most powerful camera ever to have existed - a 3D 100 megapixel digital camera that takes 40 million pictures a second and records every minute detail of the events that are going on at that time. ...So in the early 1990s a few colleagues and I conceived and designed exactly such a camera - the CMS experiment - at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva.”

He revealed: “Then over a period of 20 years I oversaw the construction of this gigantic digital camera. This momentous journey has occupied me for the last 25 years - most of my scientific career, in fact. But we physicists love a challenge of seemingly impossible tasks.”

He said that what began with a small team now occupied 3,000 scientists from around 40 countries - a “United Nations of science”. Among them were 100 scientists from India who had “the knowledge and the expertise to deliver” the parts required of them. Virdee raised some deep philosophical questions. “What does this discovery mean for science? Now I mentioned the standard model (of the Higgs Boson) - the greatest intellectual achievement of human kind, I believe.”

“However, this standard model only explains the visible universe - stuff that we see which constitutes unfortunately 5 per cent of our universe,” he explained. “We still don’t know the composition of the other 95 per cent. So the standard model is far from a complete description of nature.”

“Now I will end with asking another question: what does this discovery mean for society and what lies ahead?” he went on. “Progress in fundamental science allows us to get a deeper understanding of how nature works. That’s why we do it, it excites us scientists to do it.

But one should always remember that over the centuries this understanding has very much altered the way we live - giving us a better life, providing us with paradigm shifting technologies such as electricity, electronics, telecommunications, medical imaging and the worldwide web which was invented at CERN only 20 years ago to name just a few. “

Virdee said: “Almost anything you do is stepped in fundamental science. The incredible discovery of a Higgs Boson on 4 July 2012 is seen by many as a portal to the physics of the 21st century. So we have just completed the physics of the 20th century. So there is much to look forward to.”

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