Grigory Trubnikov’s Interview for TASS

Interview, 08 February 2021

Academician Grigory Trubnikov: Construction of giant neutrino telescope will be completed on Baikal in March

A unique international research centre, the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research (JINR), established on the initiative of several countries (now 18 Member States) has been operating in Russia for 65 years. On the Day of the Russian Science, celebrated on February 8, the JINR Director, Academician of the RAS Grigory Trubnikov told TASS about the past, present and future of the Institute, about the important events with which the JINR will cheer us in the Year of Science and Technology, and about the current developments in the Russian science in general.

Grigory Trubnikov © Stanislav Krasilnikov / TASS

First of all, I congratulate you on taking over as the JINR Director on January 1, 2021. Naturally, the first question is on the tasks you set for yourself in this position? How do you see the JINR in the short term, for example in the Year of Science and Technology, and in 10-15 years?

Thank you! I see the JINR as a successful, fast-developing, vibrant international scientific center, which is dynamically, and what would be even better, – ahead of time, responding to the challenges of the times, to the interests of the member-countries and especially of the country of the location – Russia.

We must be a progressive organization looking into the future, forming new standards of international scientific and technological cooperation. At the same time, the things we are doing should be not only very ambitious, but also open and understandable to society. Our global goal is to promote the highest value of science for humanity.

Why is the JINR interesting to the world and Russia? What makes the Institute unique, what distinguishes the JINR from other international centers?

The JINR is not just a scientific organization or a research institute. It is a large international interdisciplinary centre. We are often asked questions: are you just like CERN, or are you better than CERN or worse? Or are you just a CERN replica? How are you different from a large national laboratory in any of the leading scientific powers? It seems to me that JINR is, first of all, a completely unique environment that attracts talents, minds, scientists and engineers. By environment I mean not only the Institute itself but also the environment formed by the town – this is also very important.

And in comparison with CERN, and there are just two of us – so big and vibrant centres in the world, the JINR has certain, and we believe, additional advantages. Our institute is an interdisciplinary centre, we conduct international research not only in the field of nuclear physics and high-energy physics but also in radio-biology, in the field of condensed matter physics, in information technology, in theoretical and mathematical physics.

In fact, a scientist needs a few key things for self-realization. The first thing on this list is an ambitious task. A scientist is a person who should always think ambitiously, try to look beyond the boundaries of the known, to understand the phenomena and laws of nature. Every ambitious scientist wants to hoist the flag first. This is a basic feature of human nature itself – to be the first to climb the highest mountain or the first to reach Venus or Mars. Competitive spirit spurs also in science, it develops it very correctly – you do not “turn sour”.

The second in the list are the conditions for the implementation of the task: the devices, the team, the availability of data that you need for the experiment. The third item – these are the conditions of life and self-development: social culture, creativity, sports, nature, ecology and the like. As they say, it either smells of science or not. After all, a modern scientist is, first of all, a multifaceted personality, with knowledge of several languages, wide geography of cooperation and scientific travel around the world, a healthy lifestyle, involvement in educational activities and the popularization of science. In this sense, the JINR is a unique international environment developed over 65 years of our work, where fundamental science has always been at the forefront, and applied science has always been an immutable complement, a parallel result of fundamental research. And always, here, in Dubna, there were special people – from its founders to those who now maintain its very high standard.

In 2020, we formed a new development strategy for the Institute until 2030 and beyond. We have got as a result a fresh, full of energy document of an unprecedented format. Absolutely synchronized with the European Strategy for the Development of Physics – 2030, other road maps of international alliances in various areas of fundamental research and, of course, with the Strategy of Scientific and Technological Development of the Russian Federation and similar documents of other member-countries of the JINR.

Our new strategy is about principles and the system of coordinates, the image of the future leading intergovernmental centre of the 30s of the XXI century. We spent a lot of time on forecasting and analyzing our activities. Interviewed the older generation, middle-aged and young scientists: why have you stayed in Dubna? The most frequent answer: “Because of the people, because of the unusually comfortable living environment”. It’s very important. Therefore, in a certain sense, our Institute should be a trendsetter in the formation of an international environment, a platform for conducting critically important research, our mission is to integrate international intellectual potential. We are not just an international organization, we are an intergovernmental organization under the auspices of the governments of the member-countries. This helps us very much in implementing the scientific agenda at the forefront of science and you may call it being in the vanguard in quite a number of things, creating the most favourable conditions for people here to engage in science.

What are the most interesting things you plan to do at the JINR in the Year of Science and Technology?

I would say that the Year of Science should not be radically different in terms of our activities from the usual, “cruising” year of the JINR. By the way, I would note that this year is the anniversary of JINR: in March our organization will turn 65 years. We are implementing our scientific program at the highest international level, and this standard should be maintained regardless of whether it is a jubilee year or a regular one. But this year we should tell as much as possible about ourselves and with bright events of our scientific life to assure the founders that the Institute is effective. No matter how pathetic these words sound, but each of the JINR member-countries wants to be in the club of world scientific leaders. In 2021, we will make every effort to prove and show that the Institute creates reasons for pride, and these are our discoveries in the physics of phenomena and new knowledge about the surrounding universe.

Can you tell us about the JINR specific projects, which in 2021 can, as they say, “shoot”?

We are developing according to the seven-year plan, which is the cycle of our development adopted in the early 2000s. Preliminary research program is analyzed by all member-countries, the International Scientific Council, which includes 50 very bright minds of mankind in the field of physics and in interdisciplinary fields: outstanding scientists, presidents of academies, rectors of the world’s leading universities, leaders of the world’s largest collaborations, directors of national laboratories and institutes. Each cycle of the JINR development program undergoes the most independent and open examination, then it is adopted, and we continue working on it and implementing it.

As part of the program, we have several major projects based in Dubna. We call them “basic JINR facilities”. In addition, the institute has such a very interesting format as “basic facilities in Member States”. After all, the JINR not only develops an international scientific site on the banks of the Volga to the north of Moscow but also creates its own “branches” that grow in the form of new experimental facilities in the member-countries.

For example, Kazakhstan there has been created a large-scale research cyclotron center for materials science and radiation technologies, accelerators for which were built in Dubna and personnel for which are also trained in Dubna. In Poland, a state-of-the-art experimental station is being created for material science research on beams from a Solaris synchrotron source. In Romania, we are participating in a major international project to create an ultra-powerful ELI laser. A cyclotron for nuclear and radiation therapy – a medical centre for the treatment of patients was created in the Czech Republic with the assistance of the JINR.

If we talk about similar vibrant objects in Russia outside Dubna, it is primarily a unique telescope “Baikal”, which the JINR creates together with the Institute of Nuclear Research of the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Skobeltsyn Institute of Nuclear Physics of the Moscow State University and a number of other scientific centres. Not far from Irkutsk, on the Lake Baikal, on the 106th kilometre of the Krugobaikalskaya Railway, we are building a cubic kilometre deep-sea giant neutrino telescope, which we want to grow this year to the largest volume in the Northern Hemisphere. In fact, we will soon have another mega-science research facility in the country, which will be an important contribution of the JINR to the Russian program of scientific megaprojects. The large-scale neutrino telescope “Baikal” should begin work in March, and this will be one of the landmark events in the program of the Year of Science and Technology – 2021.

Let me remind you that there are several neutrino telescopes of this type in the world – they are all large: in the Mediterranean Sea, in Antarctica, in China and in Japan. Their task is to study signals from high-energy neutrinos coming to us from space, from the depths of emerging or dying galaxies and various exotic stellar objects. These neutrinos carry invaluable information about the objects that give birth to them, shedding light on the mysteries of the origin and evolution of our universe. The largest neutrino telescope at the moment, the Ice Cube, is located in Antarctica and is operated by an international collaboration. Its effective volume is almost half a cubic kilometre. The telescope measures neutrino flows coming from space from the side of the North Pole, piercing the Earth and going out in the area of the South Pole.

Our “Baikal” will also explore the streams of neutrinos, “piercing” the Earth from the South Pole and coming out in the Northern Hemisphere, in the area of Baikal. The two largest neutrino telescopes, the Antarctic and the Baikal telescopes will thus create a complete 3D picture – physicists say the “4p geometry” – of streams of super high energy particles going through the planet. In addition, it should be noted that such neutrinos from space, as well as neutrinos, born in the depths of our Earth, form also a kind of tomograph of our planet. In addition, this telescope is also an element of monitoring the ecosystem of Lake Baikal itself.

Another bright page that we open in the coming Year of Science and Technology are super-heavy elements. In Dubna in December 2020 there started a unique series of experiments at the so-called SHE-factory for the synthesis of super-heavy elements. Let me remind you that ten new elements have been discovered in Dubna in recent decades. And in appreciation of the Dubna’s contribution to this great thing, there appeared in the Periodic Table of Elements such elements as Dubnium, Moscovium, Flerovium, named, respectively, in honour of Dubna, the land of Moscow Region and in honour of the founder of the laboratory, academician G. N. Flerov. And the heaviest element at the moment, element number 118 is Oganesson, in honour of the outstanding scientist, academician Yuri Oganessyan, who is the leader of these works. A few years ago, Yuri Tsolakovich said that it is not interesting to be just a world leader, we should not be just a body ahead of our partners running this distance, but to overtake them by at least one circle. And proposed to create a facility that at the time of its launch would be ahead not by percents but by several times, say, 50 or better 100 times against the parameters of all our partners and competitors. That would allow our scientists in Dubna to work calmly for at least ten years and at the same time think about the next scientific step.

Such a factory was launched last year, and the test experiments were launched in September 2020. In December 2020, we switched the facility already to the cruising mode for the program of new elements synthesis.

Our goal is, of course, new elements of the next, eighth period of the Periodic Table. We want to understand what element 119 is, what elements 120 and 121 are.

It will be either a line of elements in the traditional sequence, or those will be superactinoids, or those elements will have completely unexpected properties because of the relativistic effects of electronic shells, and elements of the group of metals will behave like gas, and so on.

During the first four weeks of operation, by the end of January, there were accumulated as many events as for ten years of operation of the previous generation facility. It should be noted that our factory now works only at half capacity because it is important for us to reach peak performance consistently and carefully. And, in principle, we would be happy in the Year of Science and Technology to please the scientific public, for example, by observing events that would indicate the existence of new super-heavy elements, which are not yet in the Periodic table. Now we have all the tools for this, and the pandemic will not interfere in any way – everything is done remotely, and American, Japanese and German collaborators participate in experiments without problems. Hundreds of collaboration participants are conducting the experiment. Moreover, at the institute we did not stop for a minute either scientific seminars and conferences or the support of thesis – everything is carried out on-line and efficiently. Although, of course, in science, you will get nowhere without live communication. It is impossible to cook a full-fledged “intellectual broth” via video communication: it boils, but the aroma and taste are not the same.

Let’s talk about the NICA (Nuclotron-based Ion Collider Facility) mega-science facility. Still, this is one of the world’s key scientific projects now. How is the construction going? Are there any problems due to the pandemic? Has the research program for the collider already been formed?

NICA is now undoubtedly the flagship project for the Institute. Nothing of this scale has been built in the JINR since the 1960s, and in Russia, the last project of this scale was built in the late 1980s.

The NICA project is truly unique in the scale of the resources, people, businesses and countries involved. The colossal installation is being constructed from scratch, in fact in a green field in Dubna, using completely new technologies based on superconductivity, and unprecedented precision in time resolution and spatial metrics

The basic principle of NICA technical design is that the project should be the most ambitious in terms of parameters not at the moment when it is being designed, but at the moment when it is launched. And after that, for 10-15 years, the project should be an absolute leader both in its niche of research and by technical parameters. We’ve been able to do that.

We hope that at the end of this year we will commission the complex of buildings and structures of NICA, that is, the main building of the collider, the tunnel, the beam channels, the shutters of beam channels. This will be the most important stage in the construction of the project. And we will start the program with heavy ions on the second cascade, which will consist of two superconducting synchrotron rings, producing beams of heavy nuclei for eager physicists and biologists. Last year, in November, with the participation of Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, we launched the first cascade of NICA – the first ring of the superconducting booster synchrotron. This year we are to launch the second cascade with the booster and the Nuclotron superconducting accelerator, as well as begin a full-scale physics program using beams from the second cascade. Well, a full-fledged complex with a huge and modern heavy ion collider should be operational in 2023. Therefore, in 2021 we want to show this “cherry on the cake” both in honour of the Year of Science, but also, of course, from the perspective of fulfilling obligations to the member-countries, which contribute to the further development of the institute. This will be an extremely important “milestone”.

We have two collision points on the NICA project, in which the beams will collide at near-light speeds. There’s a huge detector at each point. One detector for the study of extreme states of nuclear matter, laboratory studies on the modeling of the matter of neutron stars, that is, heated, molten nuclear quark-gluonic matter. The second point is the study of the nature of the spin of the nucleus, that is, the structural properties of the nucleus itself and the particles of which it consists, namely protons and neutrons.

This is an absolutely daunting task. It does not answer the question of how the universe was formed, how the matter was formed in the universe. But its solution answers the questions: what is the structure of the nuclear matter, that is, the substance from which we all and the world around us is built, what characteristics this matter has and how they could be managed, by giving matter these or those properties

Investigation into the extreme states of nuclear matter is the key to alternative sources of energy. The key to understanding how we can make the matter around us not only give away, but also produces energy through certain interactions within this matter, like at the time when uranium fission was discovered and nuclear energy was tamed. Similarly, according to modern ideas, we are considering the possibility of forcing nuclear matter itself – protons, neutrons – to generate energy in certain conditions. It’s insanely interesting and promising. In terms of spin physics, the nature of spin is, of course, the key to the new properties of matter. By understanding the interaction inside the proton and the neutron, and by understanding the contribution of particle spin to the properties of nuclear matter, what is it made of and how is it distributed between quarks and gluons inside protons and neutrons, we will get the key to the opportunity of forming a matter with predetermined properties.

Is the actual detailed scientific program for NICA – the list of experiments – being formed already? Or isn’t it started yet?

A very good question! We started to form a list of experiment participants exactly at the moment when the hammering-in of the first pile into the foundation of the building of the future collider complex began, that was, four years ago. And the experimental program itself has been formed by the international community for about ten years already. The core of experiments is people. It is impossible to attract and get interested several hundred highly qualified specialists with one move, one click. As we have said, people can only be infatuated by a real task.

From the first piles we started to form international scientific collaborations: MPD (Multi-Purpose Detector) and SPD (Spin Physics Detector). The MPD heavy-ion collaboration now unites more than 800 people scattered around the world. As soon as the experiment begins, all of them will be fully involved. So far, the collaborators gather twice a year to clarify the future scientific program and details of their participation and conducting of experiments. The MPD has already formed and approved the so-called “first day experiment”. There are still 2.5 years before the launch of the collider, but already now it is possible to study the program and see which detector systems will be involved in the work, what will be the order of assembling and how it will be analyzed. This first day experiment, like a kind of time capsule, is waiting in the wings. The collaboration on the second SPD detector will begin its experiments in about four years after the launch of the first detector of the NICA project, but it already numbers about 250 people from 20 countries of the world.

The Institute is also engaged in the creation and implementation of various innovations, such as a detector of explosives and drugs, for example. Are you working on some other similar things?

JINR is so arranged that about 90% of the tasks in its problem and thematic plan relate to fundamental research: obtaining new knowledge, researching new properties and understanding the nature of phenomena, obtaining systems with previously unreachable characteristics, studying and understanding the nature of fundamental interactions, theoretical research. Our applied achievements and research logically go in parallel with the fundamental research but are a “side result.

You have just reminded of the detector of explosives and drugs. Once our physicists, working on detectors for a large physical experiment, noticed that if you irradiate the matter with neutrons and at the same time very accurately measure the spectrum of radiation from the irradiated matter, you can make a very quick and accurate judgement on its chemical composition. These are obvious things that humanity has known for a hundred years. But it was necessary to guess about the exact time reference of signals and to develop a mobile structure. It was in Dubna that they were able to create a compact radiation source with beams of particles for certain purposes, i.e. focused on the detection of narcotics and explosive substances. And as one of the embodiments of this innovation – instruments created by the JINR technology.

Grey racks called “Amber” manufactured by the joint venture of JINR and SPC Aspect now stand at the entrances of all Russian airports and railway stations, as well as abroad. These are the same detectors of explosives and radioactive substances using technologies from high-energy physics.

Another applied direction developed on an industrial scale in our country (“spin-off”, as it is now trendy to say), is the study of the radiation resistance of space electronics. Most of the electronic components used in domestic space objects are tested on nuclear beams here in Dubna, on our specialized cyclotron-accelerator. The fact is that because of the powerful radiation in space, electronic components fail very quickly. It is necessary to understand which of the nodes they have are most sensitive to such radiation with charged particles, to study the spectrum of these particles, to understand weaknesses in chips and electronic nodes. So we help colleagues to extend the life of electronics operating in orbit.

The third spin-off for the JINRI is pretty well known, these are track membranes. Academician Flerov also suggested irradiating polymer films with beams of charged ions, so that depending on the energy of particles it would be possible to make tunnels (holes) of different diameters in this film, (from tens of nanometers to microns), with different frequencies and different distribution. This idea has been first of all used to make water filters. The technology is already over 20 years old, we make such films for many of our customers not only in Russia but also in China and Germany. Several years ago it was proposed to apply this technology for making filters for blood purification. Such filters are used in medicine – during operations or in artificial kidney devices. We manufacture such filters in Dubna. Our main customer for all these products is China, but they have also been applied in Russia.

This technology gained a whole new use in March 2020, when our physicists dealing with blood filters and filters for various gases, substances, liquids and other things, proposed to use filters to fight the coronavirus infection.

The films we irradiate are chemically resistant, so they can be washed in any solution: acidic, alkaline, killing viruses and bacteria. Unlike conventional film, such polymer membranes are very durable, it is possible to use them for the production of reusable protective cartridges to protect the respiratory system and skin. Alas, in Russia they have not yet got interested in our proposal – it is going through very long inter-agency approvals, but the Italian industry, at the request of one of our partner institutions, has already successfully implemented this development in serial production. Such nuclear membranes can be used extremely effectively in test systems for rapid diagnosis of the coronavirus.

I will tell another interesting story related to the Covid. We at our reactor – at a neutron source, together with pharmacists conducted a very interesting study of the walls of cells from the perspective of their resistance (i.e. strength) to the penetration of coronavirus through them. Our results have already been published and are being used for the manufacture of medical anti-coronavirus drugs.

The pride of JINR is the fact that in recent years we have become one of the world’s largest nodes for storing scientific data. In the recent December world ranking of the 500 fastest data processing systems, we are in the top twenty. The data transfer rate in these top processing systems is 400 gigabits per second. Dubna has provided its resources for storing and processing data to CERN and, by the way, to the World Health Organization for the global COVID-19 database.

What do you think about the state of our Russian science now? JINR is a prominent international centre, a powerful international collaboration. But what do you think about the environment in which it exists in Russia? How does science in general feel in the country?

The answer to this question is multifaceted. Fortunately, turbulence in politics has little impact on science. Russia remains open to international scientific and technical cooperation, participates in the largest and most striking experiments of the world. It is very important that we are recognized as a key partner there. The world sees us as a strong scientific power, recognizes us as part of the elite scientific club. That’s actually true. And the JINR is one of the great examples of how Russia can organize international scientific cooperation on its territory – this experiment has been working for 65 years already. Our institute is growing and getting stronger with the strategic support of the country of its location – Russia. I must say that in response we give reasons for pride.

Today, the JINRI is one of the three largest by staff international intergovernmental organizations and is the sixth-largest in the world in terms of funding

From the point of view of the state of Russian science and national interests, I am personally concerned by the fact that the alliance “state plus science” does not yet perform the most important function of spatial balancing or network connectivity of the country by human resources and, in a good sense, the function of “holding the territory together”. That’s why we are seeing a large migration of scientific personnel to Moscow and St. Petersburg. There is undoubtedly an outflow from the country. It’s small. We have recently increased the number of researchers, the proportion of young scientists is increasing. And yet the neighbours do not sleep either. The world is open, we are an open country. Those who could not satisfy their ambitions, for example, in a certain region of Russia, and then in Moscow, choose a more, let’s say, an attractive environment for themselves. By the way, the world is not just open, it is aggressively fighting for talents and intellectual resources. The currency of the second half of the 20s of the 21st century will be human capital – talented highly educated professionals. So it seems to me that one of the missions of Russian science, which is not being fulfilled, that is, is not being implemented, is to ensure the spatial connectivity of the territory by supporting the development of human capital. If we create balanced, comfortable conditions so that a person, a good scientist, a good researcher, an engineer, arriving in the region, could stop thinking about the support of his family and about his accommodation, but only engage in research, we will thereby create effective internal academic mobility and we will definitely stop this migration towards the capital and from the capital – abroad. Russia should form a national scientific and technological doctrine that will allow us becoming one of the most attractive territories in the world, offering the most comfortable conditions for research.

I would note that another important aspect is the image of science, including as a socially useful and, if you like, a prestigious field of activity. And here, too, it is important to draw a consistent course of popularizing the scientific sector in our society, first of all, getting the admiration of the younger generation – so that children would dream of becoming scientists. We are also trying to make our modest contribution in this area. For example, together with the government of the Moscow Region and the city of Dubna, we plan to open in our science city in September 2021 a new Physics and Mathematics Lyceum named after Academician V.G. Kadyshevsky.

Then we can talk about other different troubles: about the barriers of migration legislation, the difficulties associated with procurement, the fact that scientific research is a service in modern legislation, about the weekly expectations of the supply of consumables and bios from abroad and about many other things. In my opinion, this is all again because of the fact that scientific activity does not have a special status in the country, which would give it a special system-forming role. But scientific activity is one of the main priorities in the development of any modern state. It contributes to the creation of a high-tech sector of the economy, demography, education, territorial development, and everything else. And, of course, to national security and technological independence. And our national goal should be a transformation of scientific research and developments and the associated with them high-tech industry into a sector of the economy that will produce at least a third, and better – a half of the country’s GDP.

In many countries of the world, science has a special status, stipulated in laws. This status, by the way, for example, in China entitles to the risk of not achieving the planned result in fundamental and search science. We do not have such a status but there are strict reverse measures. That is, in exchange for budgetary funding of research, you have to give a measurable scientific result, and do this several times a year reporting for each of the stages. This leads to a completely obscene bureaucracy and a huge volume of transaction costs. But most importantly – to false goal-setting: not the achievement of new knowledge and innovations, but the achievement of pre-planned digital indicators and volumes. But fundamental science is not done like that and applied science too. In applied science, by the way, the percentage of implementation in the leading countries reaches 20-30%. And business should also want to enter science. Therefore, of course, in scientific activity, there should be the right to take risks. In China, for example, it is formulated as follows: if you have received budget funding and have proved that you made every effort to get a result, but you have not achieved it for objective reasons, then supervisory and inspection bodies do not go after you. So no one is going to accuse you of misusing funds. But that is just one side of the issue. Another component is the responsibility of a scientist to society, which gives him the opportunity to do what he loves. We also have a lot to do in this direction.

At the same time, I want to emphasize especially that we need to speak more about the fact that our science is actually successful. It is very competitive in many areas, there is something to be proud of – including world level achievements, and talented personnel, and research infrastructure, active scientific schools. But the development and support of science must be dealt with as seriously as the support of other state-forming systems: energy sector, medicine, industry, security. No endless reform and squeezing of unprecedented productivity and scientific results out of our scientists, by the way, one of the most intelligent, educated and patriotic parts of our civil society and by no means its most ruffy component. Russia’s investigators are among the most effective in the world. This is easy to see if you look closely at the results of national fundamental and exploratory science matched with the budget allocations invested in it and compare yourself by this indicator with other leading scientific powers.

As a representative of the Russian scientific community, I am pleased that for the last few years the words about the key bet of the state on science and innovation have been very seriously and persistently heard from our top leaders. There is an absolute understanding of the need for scientific and technological breakthrough and outpaced development of knowledge-intensive sectors of the economy. The state at its highest level clearly understands that if you lose the scientific and technological race, the economic race will be lost too. But science, as a patient and as a professional athlete, needs systemic “medical” care: regular analysis and diagnosis, comprehensive treatment and preventive measures, rather than resuscitation for the last jerk or injections to relieve symptoms. Look here, in case of the army and Ministry of Emergencies, and the medics in the pandemic the outcome was effective – but only as a result of systemic measures and full strategic support from the state. You should not squeeze last juices out of the scientist and tame them, you should love them! The development of scientific research is a systemic long history on which you need to spend a lot of resources – administrative, financial, and all other. It’s not going to work any other way.

Interviewed by Andrey Reznichenko, TASS