How do atrophysicists live their lives? I had an opportunity of meeting two of them and discover how close they are within their community and why they shy away from talking about their work.
My wife told me one evening that her friend Sarah was to visit India and would be spending a day with her. There was nothing in it that alarmed me as my wife, who is a painter, has friends all over the World and somebody or the other is always visiting her. But when she told me that Sarah was an astrophysicist, my ears perked up. She had missed me during her visit last year as I was out of town.
Sarah arrived wearing a gorgeous sari looking like a senior accomplished stately woman. Indians like me are now used to a white woman in a sari with years of watching Sonia Gandhi on the TV. With Sarah was her friend Needra, a young tall dark beautiful Sri Lankan woman who too was an astrophysicist! She said she was wearing a sari for the first time at the insistence of Sarah. When I asked her about it, Sarah went on a detailed narrative how she was initiated into wearing a sari by the wife of the Director of the Institute and had thereafter adopted the sari as her preferred dress. I noted her crystal clear memory as the event had taken place at least thirty years back!
Sarah started talking to me about my book which I had written in 1978 and a copy of which my wife had given her on her last visit. The book was about National Planning and many of the ideas written in it had since then materialized. But I had forgotten about it! I brushed it aside and told them about my new books on science fiction. One of them, titled Alby was about a computer entity who ventured out into deep space. But I wanted them to read it first so I gave them a copy and didn’t tell them what it was all about. I also gave them a copy of my book eMaya on how to stop Global warming, to see if they are interested about our planet.
I offered them Single Malt whiskey to get them talking, but as they sipped they did not bring up any topics of Universe or Space. Neither of them mentioned any galaxies, black holes, not even the solar system! Sarah talked about the scientists and the lives of their families, and many small memorable events that took place when she worked with them in India. Needra was to give a lecture on a subject of astrophysics in Pune to a group of scientists there. She did not disclose any snippets from her forthcoming speech. She never even mentioned the subject of her lecture.
But the amazing quality which seeped through their beings vibed something immortal. They watched everything with tremendous zeal and intensity and absorbed their communication with whomever they met with rapt attention of all their senses. Looking back about my encounter with them I felt that they were like visitors from deep space; from an unknown destination wandering about from galaxy to galaxy imbibing everything what they sensed to take it back with them. They appeared timeless creatures wandering about in appreciation of the Universe.
Why do they radiate such immortality? Why do they appear so close yet so distant? Why do they take such deep interest in their fellow colleagues and their families? These were the question marks which popped up in my mind. I tried to find answers and in the process discovered the truth. They were into astrophysics which is the science of the Universe. A dictionary search as to its meaning yielded the following:
Astrophysics: The branch of astronomy that deals with the physical and chemical processes that occur in stars, galaxies, and interstellar space. Astrophysics deals with the structure and evolution of stars, the properties of interstellar space and its interactions with systems of stars, and with the structure and dynamics of clusters of stars such as galaxies.
It dawned on me that if you are dealing with the structure and evolution of stars and dynamics of galaxies, you are exploring and trying to understand a very long time span ranging for billions of years. When you study the subject intensely, you go deep into it and it occupies your mind. No doubt the mind of a devoted astrophysicist is possessed with stars, comets and galaxies. Their minds are stretched to infinity. They pervade the whole Universe. These astros dream into space, of black holes and super novas. Why are they dwelling on such remote objects? Are they agents of Providence to prepare Man for his scheme of things?
Then I realized that there are only a few persons in the whole World who are into this discipline. Their knowledge is of no practical use to any human requirement now or in anyone’s lifetime. As their knowledge does not touch the life of the common man, they keep it within themselves taking care not to mention it in public. I thought that if they talked about a twin star system in a distant galaxy 1000 light years away and the rotation of their moons, they might find the eyes of the lay listeners questioning their sanity. But within their community there are open and frank and have nothing to hide about the sky and what it beholds! They band together as a very closely knit family. Everyone knows everyone in the field and they exchange the smallest detail about the lives of one another. But this intensive interest in life spills over to their friends who are not into astrophysics. My wife and I are fortunate to experience such extraordinary friendship.
Sarah and Needra went travelling to South India where they met more of their kind. And when they returned, we had them over for dinner. Much to my disappointment, they had not read my science fiction book Alby. They were more interested in participating in their friends’ earthly lives. I was a bit disappointed as I looked forward to an interesting discussion on my science fiction. I mentioned to them parts of the story and that the spaceship engine in the book accelerates the ship to 80% of the speed of light without ejecting out any mass! It is a practical answer to travel to nearby stars of the Milky Way. It was then the two sat up. Sarah immediately discarded my idea. But I goaded them to read the book and check the results of the prototype engine on Google.
But they had perused through my other book eMaya on Global warming. Sarah had seen the reviews on Amazon. She got talking on it. She said she was impressed with the way I had handled a difficult and a dry subject and brought the concerns about emissions, ice melting, nuclear power and population in simple and lucid terms. Needra remarked that it had a lot of information on all subjects concerning climate control of Earth and much more. They both really enjoyed reading it. I was amused to see that these astrophysicists were concerned about few degrees rise in temperature of our planet. Normally they wouldn’t bat an eyelid to see the temperature of a star shoot up by a million degrees, explode and become Super Nova! But Sarah had liked the book and agreed with the conclusions of eMaya on climate control.
We parted with hugs, handshakes, and pleasantries. I got a feeling that these starry women knew more than any mortal like me. I wondered what their mission would be in their next lives. I wished I could offer them a galactic penny for their thoughts! But I consoled my mind by saying that wait, they will be back! And now I am patiently waiting for the next encounter.