Techkriti – Lewin and Me

“And THAT is non-intuitive, very non-intuitive”

Dr. Walter H.G. Lewin. You were the childhood hero of so many students all over the world for a better part of their high school. You made classical mechanics become synonymous with 8.01, electrodynamics with 8.02, you made me dream of 27.100, of *whoosh*ing chalk marks and of a loud & clear “AHA!”. You would shock and mesmerize with your swinging over as a pendulum, you would astonish with the Van de Graaff generator, amuse with your playing with frequencies, amaze with your explanation of the simplest of phenomena, send a shiver down our spines with your “Physics works, I tell you”.

So yes, you held a very special place in all our hearts. I gave you the exalted position of a teacher who never directly taught me – a Dronacharya maybe to my Ekalavya?

And then there came a chance one day when it was announced that you would visit my IIT Kanpur. I was about to faint with joy! I could not believe my luck – my childhood hero so close to me. So on a completely impromptu decision, I went to your room, D8, Visitor’s Hostel and directly knocked on your door – it was so impulsive! I was bubbling with excitement. And then after two calling-bell pushes, the door went ajar and out popped your bobbing head, that rough mass of hair, your blue-rimmed glasses, saying – “I’ll go to the coffee shop at 10:15 – meet me there”…

And so we waited, and I was stupidly involved in a sort of trance and hence forgot to call any friends and inform them (for which I would face much ire later) – my cloud developed a microscopic leak as I got maybe something a bit different from what I expected – maybe I thought I would discover you swinging on some pendulum or something! Silly me.

Then, you came and we started walking towards CCD. And you mentioned how the Indian English accent was the worst in the world and that you could not understand a word of what we said … despite me putting on the most perfect British accent I could, and even trying my American accent. You said that all the Indian professors at MIT had the accent and students hated going to their classes, but had to out of compulsion (!) though most of the lectures I have seen by Professors like Dr. Anant Agarwal, were in perfect American accent! That was a put-off – I felt you were being uncharacteristically rigid, sometimes to the point of being a bit offensive. Not your fault maybe, maybe I had too much of expectations from you, maybe I was not in the correct frame of mind, I don’t really know. When you talked of your love of espresso and described how Italian espresso bars gave pico sized servings as you walked towards the CC gate, I felt a strange feeling of disappointment.

But you made up a bit with your knowledge of photography and your desire to look photogenic. And you talked about politics and poverty. How India needed to work towards getting the poor people uplifted, and THAT should be the priority of my generation. I expected you would talk of physics and sciences and teaching, but no, you were the revolutionary and the humanitarian. You expressed your desire to see a social uprising, of wishing the people living in the slums near your hotel in Bhopal woke up in unison to capture the hotel you were staying in – and establish maybe a dictatorship of the proletariat in an attempt to eliminate classes (these are my additions of the famous phrases, Lewin did not say this) – you held my shoulders and said – “You just need a few educated leaders of the masses – Castro did it in Cuba, Hitler in Germany, though I don’t approve of him at all, he gassed my grandparents – Gandhi did it in India” – and I quipped up with Martin Luther King and you said “Aha!”.

Dr. Lewin, you then went on to criticize nuclear armament, ( In your words : “Seriously, why the hell does the US need 20,000 nuclear warheads?) the drone warfare of the USA, (the only physics bit of the discussion was here when you mentioned how drones can pinpoint locations to within four inches using satellites and lasers and if CIA wants you dead, you are as good as dead) the rights of women in Islamic countries, the religious diversity of India which you like despite being an atheist. All the while I was staring, open-mouthed. Not that I do not like such discussions, I love them. But I did not expect such to come from you. Maybe I had a different image of you imprinted on my mind, and I could not imagine you to be anything else! Sorry for that!

But still, your lecture, despite everything, was a bit boring, the same thing in some of your online videos, I had expected a bit more seriously. 

Overall, you disappointed me a bit, Sir. But no pressure, it’s more a fault on my part than yours! 


7 thoughts on “Techkriti – Lewin and Me

  1. This is what happens when you romanticize a person to that extent that even a slight deviation from their idealized self which obviously you created, leads to utter disappointment.

    Regarding this I want to put one of my personal theory of idealization.
    When you look upon a person and consider someone as ideal, they seem near to the perfect image you have created for someone.
    Consider this as you have a graph of some ideal person, let's say in two dimensions. It could be exponential, sinusoidal or anything else under the roof. You gets to know them slightly, assuming that you have got just few data points about them. You see that they lies on your perfect curve. You feel elated to have found the perfect person in the world. You want to know them more, you get more data points. Some might diverge less and some diverge more. If they diverge less you will ignore them and move onto your ideal curve fitting. If they diverge greatly, just like happened in your case you feel extremely disheartened. You want to throw off your graph and data about them they aren't your perfect person anymore.

    The only thing I want to point out here is that, “Don't make theories before you have experimental data”.
    But at the end of the day we are humans and romanticizing is in our blood. It is the irrational beliefs only that make our life beautiful.

  2. Now I get what you meant by “surprised”… I watched a short video of Lewin at IIT Kanpur uploaded a few days back … and honestly I got a bit disappointed by the his attitude( a bit offensive if I might be allowed to say)… maybe its best to remember him from his video lectures. I liked that your post contained no pretense

  3. I think it is due to the bad impression, they get on their visits to India, that stirs them up resulting in off-topic talks.

    Recently, a similar kind of thing happened during the security symposium at IITK….towards the end of the symposium, we were showing around the campus to one of the professors (of data mining), who had come from Turkey….All he talked about was the condition of the city (especially the roads), foreign vehicles passing through the campus, the lack of contribution of the alumni towards the city….and ultimately we were explaining him the socio-political system of India rather than discussing something related to data mining !!

  4. Exactly, though some things he said does make sense, Kanpur city has not felt the requisite impact it should have due to the close proximity of an institute of excellence. Some of the things made even more sense after P Sainath's talk…

  5. EDIT : Blogger does not allow editing :/ That's bad…
    Indeed romanticizing is in our blood – we all have an idealized view of the world that, when swept off, gives pain. Very few people are so lucky as to have the 'haan tum bilkul waisi(a) ho, jaisa maine socha tha' in life – it is rare, isn't it? And deviation does cause pain, but that is life and it teaches you a lot! Yes, you are right, that is what makes life beautiful, the diversity, the excessive romanticization!

  6. After being embarrassed so many times, I am starting to pay more attention to the editing part of whatever I write.

    Now, on business. Of course those people are very lucky who gets what they exactly dreamed off. But in my opinion best are those people who won't mind re-looking at their expected graph and know that what they are getting is the best, they won't find any situation where the data will fit perfectly on curve. Who will understand this better than us; the people in science.

    Just shift what you want a little and you will be cool.

  7. Indeed, now that you come to think of it, you have awakened a sleeping portion of my life philosophy a bit, have a look at this answer :
    I have always supported the concept of a flexible God which I mentioned in the answer.
    And indeed, I would like to echo you in saying that greatest is the lover who can love unconditionally, who does not associate his or less love with the fixed idea he or she has in his/her mind. Those who realize that Nature believes not in two things – constancy and generalization, yet keeps their belief in the ideology or individual steadfast, while adapting the conditions – that is passion for you. Tagore has spoken of this, of this unbridled passion… despite everything, all the pain that may be caused, all the disappointments, if you are respectful of the independence and individuality of the said person and the sanctity of the ideology, go beyond your rigid idea of him/her YET love, then you are great!!
    But this too is an utopian ideal, maybe. One cannot really guess how one can behave when faced with a previously unknown situation.

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