Tuesday, 4 November 2008


India launched the Chandrayaan aboard the PSLV-C11 rocket on 22nd October, and even as the craft was nudged carefully into a lunar orbit by controlled firing of its thrusters watched over by the bureaucratic, modest but surprisingly effective scientists at the ISTRAC down in Bangalore, an old gentleman wearing a tweed coat and well into his eighties poured me a liberal portion of liquid nitrogen from a large pressurized gourd shaped container.

He is almost completely bald and spends most of his time reading sheets of results and other arcane papers in a nice airy sunlit corner of the lab. Its a pleasant lab too, one entire side of the large hall is all windows and it reveals a wide vista, encompassing parking lots, the sea, the beach and the famous Old Course. He looks very dignified as he hobbles around the lab - looking at each of our setups in turn making sure things are on track - always with a cheerful expression and a twinkle in his watery blue-green eyes with which he peers at the world. In our first session he gave us an introduction to semiconductor physics (the experiment is to determine the band gap energy of Germanium) and he obviously knew and liked what he was talking about. Along with the typed out instruction sheet he gave us photocopies of a page of handwritten notes which he said "Happened to be lying around". Notes neatly written long ago by an old scientist for his students, he enjoyed giving them to us and explaining from them.

He can barely walk, but he handled the experiment impeccably, he got us the deionized water from a machine all the way across the hall, he poured us liquid Nitrogen, it must have been heavy in the large insulated container and he walked slowly across to each one of us and poured us our portions from a smaller jar. He never once showed discomfort or expected us to help, there was just that about his demeanor that let us know that offers of help would be unwelcome. I don't know his name and I don't know his background. I hope he has had a distinguished career and many peaceful and healthy years. I cannot be sure of any of those things but I do know this - in the evening of his life he is a happy and proud man. In his wavering but cheery voice, in his slow but purposeful walk and in his wrinkled but innocent smile there was something that warmed my heart and makes me proud to have been taught by him.

He did not tell me anything I had not been told before by other teachers - people and books - but the manner in which he ensured we went over all the basics - punctuated by self effacing "as you probably already know.."s, his small voice shaking but never hesitant, his words measured but never dull - made a deep impression on me. He told us about semiconductors as if he were introducing us to old friends, he pried the equations open to reveal elegant and pleasant pictures full of cheerful electrons and fussy bonds, he told us how when an acceptor impurity is introduced into the semiconductor, an electron is trapped by it to complete the lattice and "plays no further part in the proceedings" while a hole is left in the valence band "and conducts merrily away..". He made things interesting and ensured we listened and he wanted us to learn. I admire him for it. I admire him for not giving up, for insisting on teaching and teaching well. Even as his body was tired and worn, his mind seemed to carry with ease the weight of the years and the memories of three quarters of a century.

Pride. It can mean so many things, it can mean having discovered a comet, it can mean having married the boss's daughter, it can mean having reached the moon, but at its most elevating and touching it means doing one's job with dignity and enjoyment in the face of weakness and vulnerability, to think about the mundane nuts and bolts of a lifetime - the remnants of one's karma and dharma - with love and humor and cheer everyday even when facing the last abyss.


Anindita Ghose said...

Pride, euphoria, hope: all universal emotions. Thank you for your comments. I'm afraid of people, especially people like the ones from the Harlem projects, thinking that they now have a God who will miraculously change their lives.
While it did seem that Obama's foreign/trade policies towards India are not very favourable I was completely unable to view this objectively.

Verbal Sot said...

Makes me nostalgic for science and long to study it...at times it feels empty to study courses which are not really academic disciplines, bits and pieces that are supposed to help make sense of the business world.