Thursday, August 16, 2007

Different Physics-views!

I still remember that day. There was this conference organized by our department at Jadavpur University and it featured talks by some big name Physicists, none perhaps more famous than Ashoke Sen. We were in our undergraduate days then - all dreamy eyed budding Physicists, and of course we attended all the talks, no matter how much we got out from them. And then we got hold of the famous man himself, asking him mostly naive and inane questions, which he patiently answered. Then we wanted a group photo taken with him - he was slightly embarrassed, but still obliged. That made our day - and for a long time that remained, and perhaps still remains a prized snap for us.

Kolkata Physics was mostly like that - all sweet, no sweat. At least for us. The only method of solving problems was to stare at them for a while and then writing out the solution - working out pages full of algebra was not "elegant". We honestly believed that every problem should have a simple and intelligent solution - others are not worth bothering about. The best way of doing Physics labs was to do the experiments without touching the apparatus once. And picking and choosing what we think we should read. Quantum Mechanics and Special Theory of Relativity were exciting - Optics and Acoustics were not. Electronics was simply not Physics, and instrumentation was below our dignity to talk about. Any self respecting Physicists should work on Theory - at least we all wanted to. Well, may be all that is a slight exaggeration - but one gets the picture. Physics was supposed to be elegant and big Physicists to be worshiped.

It did not take long after coming to United States to realize that attitude would not really work. While real Physics still may be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing, to reach there one has to do a lot of dirty work. Working and reworking through obnoxiously long and ugly calculations and learning stuff which have very little Physics in them. And somewhere in the process - we lost that respect for the big and famous. Its not that I would not appreciate someone who is a great teacher or gotten some good results - but they would still remain mere mortals, as fallible as the guy next door, when they are not talking about Physics. I would not go to a colloquium just because some big name Physicist is talking, unless I have some amount of interest in what he is talking about. I would not go and talk to him just because he is so and so, unless I actually have something worthwhile to discuss.

I do not want to make a value judgement here. This summer, when I was in CERN, there was this bright kid from my undergraduate school, and he is working for his Ph.D over there in India. And I was almost feeling nostalgic - looking at him getting overwhelmed by the big shots - clicking photos, dying to talk to them, hanging onto every word they said. I could see how we did the same thing years back - and I could also see how we have cultivated this attitude of casual irreverence. The sense of wonder is still there - but it has been mostly replaced by what for the lack of a better word I would call professionalism. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Is that what "America" did to me or was bound to happen anyway? I do not know.

Sunday, August 05, 2007