The Physicist by Shiv Dutta

e equals m c squared on marker boardAs a teenager growing up in Laheriasarai, a small town in northern India, I was enthralled by the romantic visions of the accomplishments of Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Planck, and the host of physicists who had changed our understanding of the physical universe and its inner workings. They told us light was not only wave but particle as well, mass and energy were interchangeable, and nothing could exceed the speed of light. To students of science, these were revolutionary ideas that shook up the very foundation of scientific knowledge. In my youthful euphoria, I never doubted my ability to join the ranks of these great scientists. But Dada, the oldest among my siblings and the head of the family after my father’s death, wanted to make us financially independent as quickly as possible. He had sacrificed his own dreams and aspirations for our sake.

The end of the obligatory first two years of college brought me to a point when it was time to decide what I was to become professionally.

“What do you want to study?” Dada asked.

“Physics,” I said without blinking.

“You can never become a physicist,” he said.

I was awed by his personality and didn’t have the audacity to stand up to him and argue, so I didn’t.

“It has to be between engineering and medicine,” he said.

I told him engineering would not suit my temperament. Besides, I lacked the kind of manual dexterity that would be required in engineering studies. I also told him how I cringed at the sight of cadavers during a recent tour of the local medical college.

“It’s engineering then,” he said.

He and I were shortly on a train on our way to Benaras Hindu University in Benaras, about 250 miles northeast from my hometown. He returned to Laheriasarai a couple of days later after enrolling me as an engineering student and settling me down in my dorm. I lasted only a couple of weeks at Benaras despite my best efforts, and during the whole time I was there, I never felt at ease with myself or anyone else. I found living in the residence hall claustrophobic, and the campus, though beautiful with lush green vegetation all around, seemed like a place where I didn’t belong. In the classrooms, while the professors delivered lectures, my mind took leave and drifted to strange places.  I couldn’t focus on my studies. I wanted to run away but hesitated for fear of incurring Dada’s wrath. Ultimately, I couldn’t take it anymore and found myself on the return train journey back to Laheriasarai.

“What happened?” Dada said in shock.

“I tried my best, but it just didn’t work out,” I said. “I told you engineering would not suit me.”

Undeterred, he then took me to Bihar Institute of Technology in Sindri, about the same distance from home as Benaras but in the south, for another attempt for me to build an engineering career. I felt the same way at Bihar Institute as I had at Benaras, but I made desperate attempts to settle down. And then one day, a three-hour-long mechanical workshop wiped out whatever little lingering fight I had left in me.

“Saw it in the shape of a two-inch cube and then chisel and plane it so that all surfaces are perfectly even and smooth,” the instructor said after handing me and the other students a piece of steel slab.

I got it in the shape of a cube and then started chiseling and filing it. I filed and filed, and when it looked smooth and even, I called the instructor to check it out. He had what was called a T-Square, which he used to check the evenness of the surface.

“Does this look even to you?” Holding the cube in one hand and putting the T-Square against each surface, he showed me how light was leaking through the tiny gaps.

I got back to filing some more and tested the surfaces for evenness, but they were still not perfect. After spending a couple of hours, and ending up with bruised fingers and loads of frustration, I called the instructor to check again.

“This is the best I can do,” I said.

“This is not good enough,” he looked at me and shook his head.

I picked up my books and bags and headed back to my dorm, and within a matter of minutes, I was on my way to the railway station to catch a train back to Laheriasarai.

Angry and disappointed, Dada stopped talking with me. When we ran into each other, he would turn his face and walk away. If I ever asked him anything, he ignored me. I could feel the extent of his frustration at what he must have deemed as his failure to put one of his siblings on the quickest path to financial independence, but my academic preference and long-term ambition left me little room for compromise.

“If you want to study physics, you’ve to fend for yourself,” he warned. “Don’t look to me for help.”

I thought his anger was transitory and would soon fade away, but it didn’t. The rest of the family, being always under his domination, kept their own distance for fear of incurring his displeasure. My only sustenance beside food was a surfeit of silence and solitude.

I found myself confronted with two stark choices: either I succumb to Dada’s tenacious desire and go back to Bihar Institute of Technology and work towards an engineering degree chancing a lifetime of discontent, or choose to be self-reliant, be my own guide and mentor, and work towards becoming a physicist on my own. For me, the latter choice was excruciatingly difficult considering Dada’s good intentions and the sacrifices he had made for us siblings, but I decided it had to be my choice. It was 1961, and I was a teenager.

I wanted to immediately enroll in a physics program at some school, but it was too late; all admissions for the year had been closed. There were no jobs available that I could take advantage of to keep myself occupied. I faced the specter of sitting around at home and vegetating until the colleges re-opened for admissions the next year. It was around this time that I remembered about some newspaper reports about Prof. J.B.S. Haldane, a world famous British-born geneticist and evolutionary biologist, a Fellow of the Royal Society of London with Oxford and Cambridge University affiliations, who had, a few years earlier, permanently moved to India where he had joined the Indian Statistical Institute near Kolkata as a research scientist. In my youthful naïveté, not expecting a reply from this giant of a scientist, I wrote him a long letter explaining my situation, and my frustrations with the nasty turn in my life. Using an address I guessed from the newspaper accounts about him, I mailed him my letter.

“Could you suggest some projects I could take on to keep myself intellectually engaged?” I asked.

I had almost forgotten all about the letter. Then, a couple of weeks later, the mailman left an envelope addressed to me in our mailbox. When I looked at the return address, I was ecstatic:

Prof. J.B.S. Haldane, F.R.S.

18/1 Barrackpore Trunk Road

P.O. Belghoria

West Bengal

I ripped open the envelope to find a letter, a full one-pager, typed single space on both sides, and it started off (verbatim):

“Unfortunately your signature is not clear. So this letter may not reach you. P.O. Belghoria is somewhat inadequate, but your letter reached me.

“Let me be clear that engineering is a good introduction to physics. Dirac and Bhaba both took degrees in engineering. I can imagine however that it is very badly taught in many places in India.”

He went on to give me some advice on how I could use my year of hiatus to enhance my knowledge of physics and mathematics.

“But you will not learn science by reading books,” he warned.

He suggested an experiment that would not only teach me elementary statistics but also serve me well if I ever found myself needing to count alpha particles in nuclear physics experiments. The project required no apparatus or experimental setup and depended only on the time and efforts I chose to spend on it.

“Find two or three jasmine bushes. You’ll see the petal number is variable. Collect flowers during a week or so, and count petal numbers. Do this every week through a flowering season, or two.”

He asked me to get back to him in a month or so, or when I had counted the petals on a thousand flowers; he would then tell me what to do next. “Do not worry about missing a year. I missed four and a half with a war, when in the middle of my university course,” he added.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune as I held the letter in my hand. For a teenager in an obscure little corner in India, it was an incredible windfall to have a world-famous scientist as a mentor. I found his words a great source of comfort. While the fractured relationship with Dada was never far from my mind, I moped less about my situation.

“I’m on my way to much better and bigger things,” I said to myself.

 

It took me about six weeks to be ready with a set of data for Prof. Haldane. I had counted the petals of more than 1,000 flowers, exceeding what he had suggested. Most of these flowers were from our own garden, for the rest I used my neighbor’s. After arranging the data in a structured tabular form, I sent it off to him. His response came a few weeks later. Using the numbers in the table, he computed the mean, the variance, the standard deviation and skewness, terms new to me at the time.

“Get hold of a book on statistics and see what more you could do with your data,” he suggested. “If you can make observations of this sort on several bushes through a season, you may have enough for a short scientific paper.”

Spurred by the inspiring response from Prof. Haldane, I carried on my research with more vigor and élan. I made my observations on several bushes, which eventually found their place in a short scientific paper. Dada didn’t know what I was doing. He was never around when I counted the petals. My other siblings knew but showed no interest.

 

The next year when the colleges re-opened for admission, I went to Muzaffarpur, about fifty miles south of Laheriasarai, to study for a bachelor degree in physics and stayed in on campus. The government of India had awarded me a scholarship based on my prior academic accomplishments, which I used it to manage my expenses. My research under Prof. Haldane continued as well, but the pace had slowed down a bit. Dada had broken his silence somewhat and would ask me about my studies and my new college and town, but our relationship was still far from the days of earlier conviviality.

 

I moved to Kolkata in 1964 to earn a master’s degree in physics, which took me a couple of years to complete. During this phase, I often found myself needing to count the number of alpha particles in nuclear physics experiments, and I remembered my experiments with the flower petals.

 

Around this time, my life seemed to be veering towards another unpleasant turn. My relationship with Dada was still low-key. I had finished my master’s degree, but there was no prospect of employment. The job market for physicists was tight. I thought maybe this was why Dada didn’t want me to go into physics in the first place, but I was still determined to make it. Interview after interview led nowhere, and the future looked bleak. I wallowed in a sea of loneliness and wrenching frustration. I began to drift away from my family, friends and the surroundings in which I grew up. I felt alien in an otherwise familiar world. A lack of a sense of belonging began to weigh heavily on me.

The offer of a scholarship from a Canadian university to pursue a Ph.D. in physics arrived just when I was feeling an inner urge to get away from it all. A Ph.D. in physics was an essential credential to become employed as a physicist. I was over the moon at this scholarship offer and began to see bright stars in the firmament of my future. I wasn’t fretting about my dismal circumstances in India anymore. Everything is going to radically change for the better in no time, I comforted myself. One September evening in 1968, I packed up and left the country. Dada was among a handful of people who had come to the airport to see me off. I was shocked to see tears streaming down his face as we hugged. I had never seen him cry before, and the sight broke my heart.

 

Almost 36 hours later, armed with a half-empty suitcase in my right hand and $8 in foreign exchange allowed by the government of India securely tucked away in the inside pocket of my jacket, I limped gingerly out of Saskatoon airport into the sharp prairie winter and an alien world. Until then, I had hardly ever come in contact with North Americans, or was exposed to their way of life or culture. Alone in a new part of the world without any support, I was naturally somewhat apprehensive about everything, but also full of hopes and anticipation for better things to come.

My optimism about a better life was dealt a bitter blow when my department chair called me to his office shortly after I arrived on the campus.

“I’m sorry to tell you there’s been a mistake in our offer to you,” he said without much of an introduction. “We don’t offer Ph.D. in the area you want to specialize in.”

I was speechless. What am I going to do now? Do I have to go back to India and bury my face in embarrassment? Is this the farthest I will travel on the road to my ambition? The few minutes I was in the department chair’s office, a tempest of wrenching anxieties raged in my mind.

“What are my options?” I asked after I recovered from my shock.

“You can work on a master’s degree here, or try a Ph.D. at another university.”

I had already turned down scholarship offers from a number of other universities, and it was too late in the year to try for a new one. Reluctantly, I spent two years working toward a second master’s degree. As a consequence, the start of my Ph.D. program was derailed by almost three years. Also, I had to find another scholarship to pay for my tuition and expenses. Would I be able to find one? I was worried sick.

 

I moved down to the U.S. the next year to finally begin work toward a Ph.D. in physics. After nearly six years of relentless work—which was frequently dogged by agonizing frustrations, hopelessness and uncertainties—I completed it. I moved back to Canada and took a job with a Toronto-based a utility company that was in the business of generating electricity.

One day, in my twentieth year with this company, I received a call from a recruiter from Indianapolis about a job opportunity with a company that had a few Nobel Laureates in physics on its roster. I thought about Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Planck, and the host of physicists whose accomplishments had inspired me in my youth to set my goal to be a physicist. To be part of the innovative and cutting-edge research for which this company was well known had been one of my dreams for a long time.

“The company has been interviewing a number of very qualified people, so it will be a while before we’ll know their decision,” the recruiter said.

Within a matter of a few days, I was offered the job.

 

It took me more than 30 years of restless wandering through relentless chaos and conflicts to reach the goal I had set in my youth before I could rest. The fortuitous appearance of Prof. Haldane at a crossroad in my life rescued me from an uncertain future and unwittingly helped me on my odyssey. In a way, he also was searching for a place to rest. He had left Oxford, England, his birthplace, in search of peace when Britain’s role in the Suez Crisis in the late ’50s caused him deep anguish and emotional turmoil. He, too, wanted to get away from it all as I had felt on the verge of leaving India.

Though I didn’t become an Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Planck or any of the stalwarts I had aspired to be, I did become a successful physicist, aided and inspired, in no small measure, by the research experience I had gained from working with Prof. Haldane.

 

I had not met Prof. Haldane yet when I moved to Kolkata in 1964. Since I was planning on being in Kolkata, not far from where he lived, I planned to finally meet him.

“Are you going to be in town during Christmas?” I asked him in a letter about a month before the holidays. “If you are, I’d like to come and meet with you.”

“Yes. I look forward to meeting with you too,” he wrote back.

I was thrilled just thinking about my upcoming meeting with him and was full of anticipation. Would he be as congenial in person as he was in his letters? What would his voice sound like? Would he have a sense of humor? The more I thought about him, the more curious I became. Unfortunately, my curiosity didn’t have to last too long. A few days before I was to meet him, he passed away. I was devastated. I found it hard to accept the reality I’d never meet the person who had kept me going at a time in my life when I might have failed without his solace and support.

 

It was 1980. I hadn’t seen Dada since I left India in 1968, but he knew I had become a physicist. I don’t know what he thought or how he felt about it. I guess he must have been happy. While I was getting ready for my upcoming visit to Kolkata, India—my first trip back to my home country since I left it twelve years before—I thought about the conversations he and I were going to have, his curiosity about the graduate schools in the United States, his questions about my dissertation and the challenges I had to face. Just as I was about to check if I had packed his gifts in the suitcase, the phone rang.

“I’m sorry, I’ve some bad news,” the voice was solemn and subdued. It was Neil, my elder brother.

Of all the bad news he could possibly give me, the news of Dada’s death was the furthest from my mind. I was stunned. Suddenly, the world around me came to a standstill, and I felt the gentle taps of Dada’s fingers on my back from our embrace at the airport.

shiv duttaShiv Dutta came to North America from India more than 40 years ago when such movement from third-world countries was uncommon. He came here for post-graduate studies with the intention of returning to India at the end of his education, but he never did. He currently is writing a memoir from which “The Physicist” has been adapted. His publications have appeared or will appear in Eclectica Magazine, Green Hills Literary Lantern, The Evansville Review, Epiphany, The Evergreen Review, Silk Road Review, Pilgrimage Magazine, Front Porch Journal and other magazines. One of his personal essays has been nominated for Pushcart Prize this year. He also is the author of 45 technical papers and two technical books. By education and training, he is a physicist and computer professional, but his interest in literary writings goes back to his middle school years.

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  • Sandy Wickersham-McWhorter

    I am honored to count Shiv as a friend and fellow physics enthusiast who I met at Ashland University when I was earning my MFA in Creative Nonfiction.