The beautiful city of Chandigarh is situated in North India and it is a capital that shares with two states, Punjab and Haryana. And the Punjab University based in Chandigarh is the basement of the world's oldest functional cyclotron, which was one of the earliest machines built to discover what our universe is made of. A cyclotron is a particle accelerator which produces atomic particles smaller than protons at very high speed. This cyclotron at Chandigarh was only the third such particle accelerator to be built in 1963 and it is the only one from its time in working condition rather than gracing museums.

The real hero of the story is the physicist Harman Singh Hans who maintained this extraordinary machine for years. Similarly, the staff and scholars at the physics department at Punjab University, who made Harman Singh's mission of fostering the culture of experimental nuclear physics in north India their own despite being total beginners. Today, a science historian named Jahnavi Phalkey has immortalised this unique story in a documentary.

This story started at the time when there was no particle accelerator to study experimental nuclear physics in north India as compared to other parts of the country. In the mid-1960s, a young experimental physicist Harman Singh Hans came to know that a cyclotron was up for donation at the University of Rochester, New York. Hans decided to give up his career as a physicist in America and return to India to set up the cyclotron at Kurukshetra University in Haryana. Hans's former student, Indra Mani Govil came to help him and flew to Rochester to have the cyclotron dismantled and put on boats in 7-8 crates in 1966. However, transporting the cyclotron became a huge challenge for the two, and Govil shares his experience in Jahnavi Phalkey's documentary. “It was challenging from Day 1 itself. The shipment got stuck in Mumbai. I had to go from Kurukshetra to convince the customs officials that we were not smuggling in gold. That it was research equipment”, the retired Physics professor Govil remembers, similarly on behalf of Hans who is no more.

Somehow the crates entered the land of Kurukshetra, but challenges only grew from here. Hans and Govil soon realized that Kurukshetra did not have any infrastructure to set up the cyclotron, so the project was transferred to Punjab University in the area instead. A crane was deployed to lift the massive 20,000 kg magnet of the cyclotron. A huge underground lab was built to house vacuum pumps, wiring, controllers and all other things. Accordingly, Govil went to England to get trained on how a cyclotron works because no one in the department knew how to establish a cyclotron. Lab assistant Bishambhar Dass and technician SR Bahadur began scanning its nuts, bolts and other parts. Other lab technicians and PhD students also joined them in the mission.

After numerous failed experiments, late nights and external assistance, the team extracted a beam of electrically-charged particles for experiments, almost a decade after the cyclotron arrived in India. Restarting a cyclotron which helps to study the entire universe was a very huge achievement at that time without any past knowledge. Govil recalls all the criticism while restarting the cyclotron. Their cyclotron was called a white elephant, a waste of time and funds. And some people thought that they created the beam from a torch. Subsequently, the cyclotron became the region's research facility that Hans had hoped for. After that, Hans wanted a national-level particle accelerator at the Punjab University. The then prime minister Indira Gandhi herself signed the project in 1984, just a day before she was shot dead. But her assassination led to riots in the region and the cyclotron went to Inter University Accelerator Centre (IUAC) in Delhi.

When researchers began gathering to the IUAC, Govil reinvented the cyclotron around 1998. Technologies like Proton Induced X-ray Emission Spectroscopy (PIXE), and Proton Induced Gamma-ray Emission (PIGE) were generated in to study the concentration of trace elements in the air, water, antiques, etc. They moved from utilising the cyclotron for nuclear physics to applied physics and material sciences. Even today, the cyclotron which was created so many decades ago is functioning well to teach the young generation about the miracle of science and the universe.