When you are young, you are in an impressionable age. People who you see around greatly influence you. You are also looking for role models that you would like to follow. But at the same time, you also want to do something different, express your passion and act accordingly. The realities of the world around often “tame” you and people with practice experience tear your world of dreams. Alas – this often leads to a life without oddities.
I studied at Balmohan Vidyamandir, a well-known Marathi medium school in Shivaji-Park in Mumbai. Physics (“Padarthvidyan”) was introduced to us in the 8th standard. Physics fascinated me. I liked the sheer rationality of the subject and its importance and vast potential as a foundation to the applied world. The teachers who taught were as precise as the subject and delivered lectures intermixed with problem-solving that built our confidence and understanding about the subject of Physics.
After schooling, I joined First Year Science at Ramnarayan Ruia College. Physics was taught to us by Professors R D Gupte and Karnik. Prof Gupte covered Mechanics and Prof Karnik Heat. Prof Gupte had an impressive personality, a British accent and great oratory skills. He would walk around the stage and the podium in a rhythm. He used the blackboard to write key points and the equations. He did not follow textbooks of Indian authors (not because they were inferior) but instead introduced to us the book “Physics-I” by Halliday and Resnick – the most celebrated book on “College Physics” (Now the book is on its 10th edition with James Walker)
A combination of Prof Gupte’s style of teaching with the book by Halliday and Resnick was intoxicating. I fell in love with Physics. Professor Karnik, though equally a good teacher, seemed much more “conventional”. He taught us the subject of Heat more to do well the University examination, and did not follow Halliday & Resnick and did not have Prof Gupte’s charismatic style of delivery.
I remember we had pre-university exams at the College as “qualifier” to the main university exams. The paper on Physics was set in two parts – one by Professor Gupte and other by Professor Karnik. We were provided with two separate answer sheets for each part. Prof Gupte had put tough questions for his Mechanics portion making us “think” while Professor Karnik’s paper on Heat was rather straightforward – i.e. if you knew the equations, all you needed was substitution of the right data or the input.
I decided to solve only Professor Gupte’ s part. The minimum marks for “passing” were 35 and I was confident to get at least 35 out of 50. So I saw no need to solve Professor Karnik’s portion for the purpose of passing – and the subject of Heat (and the way it was taught) wasn’t exciting to me. The duration of the paper was 2 hours.
I walked out of the examination hall in one hour (so as to be fair). I submitted a completed answer book for Mechanics and a blank answer book only carrying my roll number for Heat. Everybody in the hall was surprised to see my “early exit”. Most thought that I had an emotional breakdown!
Two weeks later, Professor Karnik announced a session where answer books were to be shared with marks and of course guidance was to be given for the final university exam. The lecture hall was full as attendance was compulsory. Prof Karnik was reading out the roll numbers one by one with names and the student had to go to the Dias to collect the answer book. It appeared that the overall performance wasn’t good or perhaps the marking was rather stiff as most students scored between 35 to 45 out of 100 (some were probably given “grace” marks to clear the “wall” of 35).
My roll number was 85. Professor Karnik reached Roll number 84 and then skipped calling me and moved to Roll number 86. I was shocked – why did Prof Karnik not call me? I started wondering. I thought that my submission of blank answer book for the Heat part must have made him really upset and angry.
When everybody got the answer books, Prof Karnik took a pause and then called out my roll number and name. I sheepishly walked slowly to the Dias. I was prepared to listen to his firing or harsh words.
Prof Karnik smiled instead and then held my hand and raised it high like a winner of a boxing competition. He said loudly in his characteristic squeaky voice “This boy answered only the Mechanics part and got 50 out of 50 and yet he got the highest marks in the class”.
Wow, I still remember the applause that I received by equally shocked student audience.
As I left the class like a “hero”, one of the best-looking girls approached me in the corridor. My heart started throbbing. She said “I am really impressed with your style; will you teach me physics?”. I then realized that doing well in Physics could lead such exciting possibilities!
(We met several times then at the Durga Parameshwari (more known as DP) café that was right outside the gate of Ruia college. But I hardly taught her any Physics! I was later told that she did her doctoral in Physics at the very Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where Resnick used to teach)
Cafe Durga Parameshwari as of today
Professor Gupte called me to the faculty room after this episode. He told me not to repeat such oddities. “Go and say sorry to Prof Karnik” he said softly. He then paused and said “You seem to be really interested in Physics. Why don’t you attend series of lectures on Cosmic Rays by Professor Lavkire of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR)? These lectures will be in our college in the evenings of every Monday at 6 pm”
I attended the three-lecture discourse of Professor Lavkire on Cosmic Rays. Lavkire unfolded the mystic of the subject in a language we could understand. These lectures used to end by 8 pm. I used to walk alone from Ruia college through Hindu Colony crossing the Tilak bridge to Shivaji-Park and brood over the lectures. I dreamed that one day I will become like Professor Lavkire and make a career in Astrophysics.
I joined Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay for BTech program in Civil Engineering. We had five courses on Physics in the first five semesters and great teachers like Professors S H Patil, A S Mahajan and M G Rao. These courses on Physics influenced me a lot. The first textbook was once again Physics by Halliday and Resnick.
After the five Physics courses, I thought of shifting from Civil Engineering to MSc Physics. Professor G Tyagarajan of Physics Department who was also the Institute Dean of Academic Program called me to his chamber. He knew that I belonged to a family of civil and environmental engineers and so he said “stay interested in Physics, but Physics need not be your career to earn your living. Understand the realities. You are not going to make money on Physics.”
I continued my interest in Physics by reading books by George Gamow and Richard Feynman. Gamow’s book “Thirty Years that Shook Physics” was something that still cherish and of course the book “Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman”.
I loved to read these books to get insight to the work and the lives of some of these great physicists. But I found that I was getting more interested in their personal lives than the “substance”.
In my third- year onwards I decided to specialize in environmental science and engineering. This choice was both due to my interest (due to exciting course taught by Professor S M Khopkar of Chemistry department on Environmental Pollution) and certainly due to the influence of my family. The choice of making career in environmental science and engineering seemed so natural to me.
I took four institute electives on environmental science, did a two months internship at Dorr Oliver (a well-known company doing business in process engineering and pollution control) and completed a BTech project on Anaerobic Digestion. My career in environmental management deepened further as I later did my Masters and Doctoral research. Now I spent last thirty years learning this fascinating subject.
But the first love to Physics continued and it has always stayed. I bought the three volume set of “The World of Physics” by Jefferson Hane Weaver after getting my first salary. These volumes were quite expensive to purchase (even today)
A Great Library Collection on Physics
I realized that I did not have copies of Halliday and Resnick (H&R). So very recently, I bought the two old volumes of H&R (First edition that we had used at IIT). I picked up these copies from a street vendor selling second-hand books near the Fort area of Mumbai. But this time, I also purchased the “Solutions Manual”!
Many friends wondered why.
“Don’t tell us that at the age of sixty you are going to re-start reading these old college physics books” Few quipped.
I smiled – held the second-hand copies of Halliday and Resnick close to my nose to experience the faded fragrance and turned a few pages. The pages carried scribbles like “important”, “to ask” etc. and caricatures of the professors who taught.
I felt rather familiar and a bit nostalgic. I also realized that we badly need equivalent of Halliday and Resnick for introducing a foundation course on Environmental Science. This book like Halliday and Resnick should hit the 10th edition!
While returning home, I decided to check the whereabouts of the good-looking girl whom I used meet at the “DP Cafe” in front of the Ramnarayan Ruia College. I thought of connecting with her and learn about her experience of being on the campus of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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