Friday, January 14, 2011

Kindred Soul

It was math. We were doing probability. It wasn't that bad, just a bit repetitive. My eyelids were kept open with great skill as they were behaving like the opposite poles of a magnet. A bumbling person entered the room with a circular and the teacher skimmed through the text. Already whispers started breaking out to the musical intonation of snorts and giggles. "Hey probably they are informing about leave for pongal!", chimed my misty-eyed friend in front of me. Argumentative me replied dolefully, "Nah! They are probably going to announce that there is compensation for the holiday we got".

The teacher cleared her throat. We looked expectantly at her.

"All students are hereby informed that there is a lecture at the mini-auditorium from 11:30 to 12:15 by Yale astro-physicist Priyamvada Natarajan."

The entire class was indignant. Not only did the mirage of a holiday just vanish, they were asked to sacrifice their precious lunch. Not happening.

My attendance record isn't exactly impressive. A host of diseases have a gala time on my body and I was pretty sure by Indian Standard Time, it would spill over to the next hour. But the word "Priyamvada" caught my attention. A female physicist? It sounded too good to be true. I mean, I've visited a lot of forums for women in Physics but had not found a single Indian woman. I was fascinated.

You see, women in physics is a Harry Potter like obsession for me. More than engineering, there is an element of adrenaline in physics. And I love math as well (yes, I do sleep sometimes in class but that does not mean I hate the subject!) so its a perfect marriage of interests. I'd always be the lone girl in all science quizzes. There would be many in olympiads and things like that (relatively at least) but quizzes in science were a male phenomenon. This gap increased further when I took science into the eleventh grade. I went to a girls only school but attended an IIT coaching class where only 20% were girls. And of them, very very few interested in physics. I think my interest in physics really took off after 11th grade because I was fortunate to have two extremely passionate physics teachers.

So I decided I'd take a risk and attend that lecture. When the bell for lunch came, I gorged on my lunch at the speed of light much to the chagrin of my refined classmates and I feebly attempted to hide my indecent munching but I was pre-occupied with the fact that I had to eat or would be flayed mercilessly by my mother (that is an exaggeration, but still...). Then, I hoisted my backpack and was off to the mini-audi.

I met my friends from another department and was chatting with them happily. One friend remarked on the fact that the lecture was on energy development or something even though she was an astrophysicist. I said that would be anti-climatic as I had had enough of alternate energy resources to last me a life-time. Finally, the dignitaries entered and She - Dr. Priyamvada Natarajan, a woman who was about to fill me with a buoyant feeling, entered.

The AC was on full blast, and I was shivering - literally - and clutched my backpack closer to me. Yet, I was drinking in every word she uttered. She told us how she did a dual degree, with full scholarsip, in MIT in both math and physics, how Stephen Hawking was on her viva team, how she was the first female astro-physicist to be elected as a Fellow at Cambridge. I am not 100% sure about the correctness of these details, I may have confused some college names but the fact remains that she was a force to be reckoned with.

The lecture was on black holes. Astronomy used to be, many moons ago, my favourite topic. I have a hazy recollection of reading on matter and anti-matter annihilation, the CERN experiment, mind you I'm not an expert at these topics, just a little aware of them.

Artist impression of black hole collision

The talk was fascinating. So many slides had mathematic projections run on a super-computer. Yes, I am also very guilty of a condescending review of the presentation font style but forgive me, I'm a critic to the n-th degree and would never mean it personally.

Black holes, in my imagination were little black marbles that would suck you into a void. I understood that I wouldn't be pulled into it, I'd be spagettified into a thin layer and added to its increasing mass. What makes the gravity of the black hole (by the way, formed by the death of a star whose density is above the Chandrasekar limit) is its high mass in a small radius. By Newton's Universal Law of Gravitation, the gravitational force is proportional to the product of the masses attracting each other and inversely to the square of the distance between them. There were loads more details that I'll cover in a separate post soon.

She wrapped up her talk on her work where she discovered that black holes have an upper limit as well. She told us how theoretically, growing from the early universe, black holes should be enormous but they are not as projected. She discovered that the packed mass suffers an explosion, and it takes very long time to regain its original strength.

I glanced at my watch. It was five minutes to 1 pm. My lab session would start in five minutes and I had already missed my algorithms class. Still, my enthusiastic self wouldn't resist itself when the session was open to questions. I asked her whether increasing mass would lead to increasing radius, thereby curb the growth. She told me that the Scwarzchild radius was to be considered because this is not classical mechanics, even the speed of light is not sufficient to escape its pull. Also, she referred to her four-dimensional work where space-time sheet is a puncture at the black hole. She left us all dizzy with multi-verse, worm-holes and string theory.

I was cutting it thin. My lab sir is reputed to expect apology letters for lateness. Even, then I trundled down to the dais and.....

She told me that physics is empowering, that teaching physics was amazing, that women in physics is daunting and full of sacrifices and requires a certain amount of fearlessness, that she was attempting to build a library, that she likes to dress well, that she is a feminist, that she balances between male and female, yin and yang, that she likes poetry, that she loves research, that she is Bharatnatyam dancer, that she feels physics is dominated by aggressiveness but she likes to let her work speak with assertiveness. In the end, she said it doesn't matter whether you're male, female, brown, black or white, what matters is your physics!

Apart from the dancer bit, here was a living breathing soul twin.

I asked her autograph.

She had stirred my flame to fire. I wish to teach physics, more importantly my passion for physics. She gave me proof that it wasn't such a crazy idea after all.

I do not know what I should have done to be so lucky to have both our universes collide. On second thought, like she said we make our own luck.

P.S. I fell ill the very next day. I remembered pessimistically how I'd never have had the strength to survive in MIT on my own. Then I also remembered, it doesn't really matter!

P.P.S. The title was set by my sleepy busmate who was in the trauma of deciding whether to sleep or listen to my enthusiastic non-stop talk and was looking painfully happy for me until I understood and let her sleep.


  1. but the phrase " A host of diseases have a gala time on my body" could have defo been avoided ..... u sound .. well i'll tell u that in person ... :) AND I THOUGHT U WER GONNA TEACH COMPUTERS !!

  2. on the whole .... i think female physicists are cool ;) .. an it would be cooler still if u became one :) an the article is well written .. y dont u try sendin it to nxg or somethin an get it published ? im sure if ur applyin to mit it would look impressive :)

  3. ya i changed my mind in 11th :-) thanks dude!

  4. very well written sowmya..i second purnima's suggestion.send it to nxg or something.

  5. nice...nice...nice...:-)
    i can't believe that u actually noticed the font in the presentation...
    what a sowmya-ish thing to do :P
    all the best for becoming the best female physics teacher ever!!!