'(The Blog) With No Name', perhaps best described as a stream of notes and thoughts - 'remembered, recovered and (sometimes) invented'.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

'Children's Club' And Feynman

Sometime in the mid 1990s. Chennai was then Madras and I was there. My research career in Physics was on its last legs - although nobody else quite knew that (then). One day my (then) supervisor summoned me: "I am supposed to deliver a lecture at a place called Children's Club in the city to High School kids; the subject is 'Matter Waves'. I am too busy. Why don't you go and give the talk? It is rather basic stuff which you can quickly revise." I agree, halfheartedly.

"It will be a good experience. These talks are organized at the Children's Club by an elderly gentleman called Narayana Swami, he is very enthusiastic and knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects. You will enjoy talking to him." I am told further.

On the D-day morning, I saw in the 'Engagements' section of The Hindu: "R. Nandakumar speaks on Matter Waves, at Children's Club, Mylapore...." and felt tense and strangely vulnerable. I had been reading the Feynman Lectures for a few days and begun to painfully realize that Research had severely eroded whatever foundations I had built in Physics during undergrad days.

Finding the Children's Club was not difficult. Mr. Narayana Swami looked in his seventies. He was polite to a fault - and treated someone a third of his age with a lot of respect. I was introduced to the around 30 very starry-eyed high schoolers who had come for the talk as a "promising young scientist, who will carry forward the legacy of ... (some names)".

The talk went off mostly uneventfully. I tried my best to sound encouraging and inspirational to the students (although it was quite an effort, then). Yes, it was the first ever time when I was addressed as 'Sir' by students. Many of them were quite sincere and eager with their questions and I found myself struggling to answer even the more basic ones. I hope I did not put any of them off Physics, which I have always believed is a great subject (*).

When I took leave of Mr. Swami after the talk, he was again very nice and told me he would greatly appreciate if I visited the club again and gave further talks.


A decade passes by. I am now a software hack and have just joined a Chennai firm. One day while glancing thru 'The Hindu' I see in the engagements: "Prof. Ram Murty talks on Ramanujan's Great Contributions, Children's Club..."

There was barely an hour left for the talk to begin; I cycle frantically to Mylapore; once I enter the premises, the club looks strikingly familiar and at the entrance, sits an old man; it is Mr. Narayana Swami again, not too different from what he used to be - lean, bespectacled, silver haired. I approach tentatively and say. "Sir, I came for Prof. Murty's talk". He smiles benignly and says. "Yes; the talk will start in a few minutes. The students are just coming in..." And he has a further question for me: "Which school, 'ppa?"

(*) Guess, I can quote Feynman himself (from memory) to express (memories of) my feelings after my talk. This is from his 'epilogue' to those marvelous lectures: "I don't think I did very well by the students. To those who felt left out/put off by the proceedings, I would request they find someone else who can explain this most wonderful subject better.". And yes, with all the inspiration I continue to derive from the Master, let me quote further: "If I get another opportunity, I will do it right!"


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