“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!