47. Nagendra, Weinberg and some memories…

IIA days…

It was late summer/early monsoon season of 2003, in Bangalore. The BTS bus travel from Rajajinagar to Koramangala via Majestic used to take 90 min or more. This commute, which I did for about 2 to 3 months, as summer student at Indian Institute Astrophysics (IIA) is still etched in my memory. I had just finished my first year MSc (Physics), and was seriously hooked on to physics in general, and astrophysics in particular. My summer project was on second solar spectrum guided by Prof. K. N. Nagendra (KNN) at IIA. It was he who introduced me to the fabulous world of polarization optics in the context of solar physics. This opened my eyes to the spectacular world of photon transport through an inhomogeneous medium, and hence multiple scattering of light. It was KNN who also introduced me to the classic : Radiative Transfer by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. My first task as a summer student was to read the first chapter of this book and understand the representation of polarized light using Stokes parameters. The summer of 2003, was also the first time I encountered the power of computational methods to solve scientific problems, and ever since then I have deeply appreciated the role of computers in solving scientific problems. This introduction to computational physics and polarization optics (in the form of Jones, Stokes and Muller matrices) has turned out to be an important concept which I still use in my research. I thank KNN for this.

Recently, I was shocked to know that Prof. KNN passed away. His death was untimely, and a very sad news to me and many of the people who knew him. My condolences to his family, friends and students.

Weinberg inspires…

Recently, I also came to know about the sad demise of Steven Weinberg. Thanks to a special paper on Introduction to Quantum Electrodynamics in the final semester of my MSc, I learnt a bit about Weinberg as we were introduced to some aspects of unification of weak and electromagnetic forces. Also, with great enthusiasm, I learnt a lot from his fascinating book : The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe. Undoubtedly, the scientific world has lost a great thinker.

The greatest impact of Weinberg on me was in a different context. In summer of 2004, I was selected for a PhD position at JNCASR. Prof. Chandrabhas had agreed to take me in as a PhD student, and I was elated and excited to join his group. I still remember the first time I visited his lab (after the selection) sometime in late May or early June 2004. As I entered the lab and opened that famous sliding door, there was a print-out of an article which was pasted right beside the door. This article was the Four Golden Lessons by Steven Weinberg, which was then recently published in 2003. This was literally, the first article I read as a PhD student in the lab, and has deeply impacted my work.

I still revisit the four golden lessons, time and again, and has been extremely useful throughout my career. As a tribute to him, below I reproduce the third lesson, which I think is worth contemplating :

My third piece of advice is probably the hardest to take. It is to forgive yourself for wasting time. Students are only asked to solve problems that their professors (unless unusually cruel) know to be solvable. In addition, it doesn’t matter if the problems are scientifically important — they have to be solved to pass the course. But in the real world, it’s very hard to know which problems are important, and you never know whether at a given moment in history a problem is solvable. At the beginning of the twentieth century, several leading physicists, including Lorentz and Abraham, were trying to work out a theory of the electron. This was partly in order to understand why all attempts to detect effects of Earth’s motion through the ether had failed. We now know that they were working on the wrong problem. At that time, no one could have developed a successful theory of the electron, because quantum mechanics had not yet been discovered. It took the genius of Albert Einstein in 1905 to realize that the right problem on which to work was the effect of motion on measurements of space and time. This led him to the special theory of relativity. As you will never be sure which are the right problems to work on, most of the time that you spend in the laboratory or at your desk will be wasted. If you want to be creative, then you will have to get used to spending most of your time not being creative, to being becalmed on the ocean of scientific knowledge. (emphasis is mine)

Thank you, KNN and Weinberg…for some golden lessons…

2 thoughts on “47. Nagendra, Weinberg and some memories…

  1. These times that you are talking about in your life is also when we got to know each other, and I can still feel the enthusiasm that you carried with you about physics, and science in general! I share your excitement of reading ‘The first three minutes’ while in JNC, and most likely introduced to me by you.

    Liked by 1 person

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