by Sudhir Raniwala and Virginia Greco. Published: 05 October 2016

Sudhir Raniwala talking at TEDxStXaviersMumbai

TED talks are becoming more and more popular among scientists and in many other communities, since they provide a summary of key researches or share interesting ideas about a wide range of topics. Sudhir Raniwala, an ALICE collaborator who is professor of physics at the University of Rajasthan, India, took part in TEDxStXaviersMumbai, an independent event organized under the banner of TED hosted by the St.Xavier College of Mumbai.

The topics covered in the event were from disparate disciplines covering different sciences, social and legal issues, human behaviour and literature. Prof Raniwala discussed about "Little Bangs in the Laboratory", giving what the author describes as "a pedagogical explanation of the evolution of the universe by applying methods of inductive science in experiments at the Large Hadron Collider”.

We asked the speaker to summarize the content of his talk.

"As a part of the event, the talk was to address a mixed audience, mostly students and people with no background of science, and to be limited to about 15 minutes. Its aim was to explain our knowledge about the Big Bang and the subsequent evolution of the universe.  I opened the talk with a passage from the popular book “Angels and Demons" by Dan Brown underlining how the human perception of nature changes with increasing scientific knowledge.

After describing the scientific method, use of pedagogical examples helped in conveying to the audience the attribute of universality that is necessary for science to be called science.  The examples were designed so that a layperson could relate to them, and understand and appreciate the attributes of science.

Inductive science requires looking for patterns in natural phenomena, which may at first sight seem completely adventitious. The intellectual need and the subsequent pursuit of understanding nature, as well as the success in discerning its laws over about 40 orders of magnitude, have validated the scientific method.  In order to study and try to understand nature at the scale of femtometer, we need to use particle scattering experiments at very high energies, and hence the Large Hadron Collider. It was a challenge to explain to the audience of non-experts how we can identify point-like particles and study their properties. This could be achieved with some success by comparing the principle of tracks in detectors, which are the signs of passing particles, to contrails in the sky, which show that an aircraft just crossed it.

While there is an innate randomness in the final state of a single nucleus-nucleus collision, there exists an underlying pattern which can be discerned by studying large number of such collisions. These patterns are provided a mathematical structure and hence a step towards universality, validating our understanding of the evolution of the universe.

The widespread and increasing use of the scientific method by looking for patterns in data can also be helpful in other disciplines to understand some events/phenomena which may otherwise appear to be serendipitous.  An example of this is the significant number of beauty pageants won by Indian women soon after the Indian markets were opened to the world.

The talk ended with two quotes that I personally cherish, and find profound, about mankind’s understanding of nature.”

A video of the talk is available online.