I love college towns – the university libraries, extension courses, public lectures and events, keep the student in me alive and young. So, right after I decided to move to Los Angeles for a job, I knew I wanted to live in Pasadena. With Caltech in picture, UCLA and USC were not even contenders 😉 That Pasadena was also an easy commute to work and generally a nice neighborhood to live in, was a convenient coincidence. I looked up Caltech’s public events and put the ones I liked on my calendar. Yesterday morning, when google reminded me that I was to attend a screening of a documentary called Star Men at the Beckman auditorium, I made a casual mental note of it. Little did I know how wonderful the evening would turn out to be!
Star Men, a documentary by Alison Rose featured four retired British astronomers – Donald Lynden-Bell, Roger Griffin, Neville “Nick” Woolf and Wallace Sargent , who are recreating a road trip they took decades ago. On the way, Rose asked them questions about life, universe and everything and obviously their answers were much more enlightening than 42! These gentlemen had a lot of stories to share. Story of a mother working housekeeping jobs and getting paid in books and encyclopedias so her children could learn and go to Oxford. Story of developing a liking for astronomy as a 5 year old, during the WWII blackouts when there was no light pollution. Story of curiosity, of picking a topic and reading about it as much and as fast as possible, without worrying about understanding, because slowly, the pieces would fall in place. They remembered their fear of failure, wondering if their work was worthy of the giant, beautiful telescopes they got to handle. They spoke with humility, saying that their work would steer itself, they were just pulling the oars. They talked about friendship – “Once you’ve done things like this, you know people like that for life”. They discussed death’s necessity to weed out old ideas, underlining how vital it is for human progress. They talked about science and math – about discovering equations, not inventing them. And they did it all with unmistakable British humor. These silver haired explorers, who have explored the universe primarily through light, took us on an inspiring, heartwarming and thought provoking journey.
After being treated to such a fantastic documentary, imagine my delight to see two of these men – Donald and Nick get up from the audience and walk to the stage for a Q&A session. So spellbound were all of us in the audience, that it took us all a few minutes to be able to think of questions to ask. As I got up to stand in line to ask my question, I thought of Feynman. I have read some of his books and a few still sit on my book shelf waiting to be opened. I have also attempted listening to some of his lectures , although most of the physics was much too advanced for me. And every time I have encountered him via a book or a video, I have felt this regret of never being able to meet someone like him, in person. As I walked up to the microphone yesterday evening, I realized that I wouldn’t have that regret anymore.
I wasn’t surprised when in the documentary, Rose asked each of them about God. Couple of them had responses you would expect from scientists – atheist views, Buddhist views. The one I liked the most was Donald’s, that I’ll try to re-phrase here. “I pray”, he said, “not often, but from time to time, although the evidence is not very encouraging. I am a Christian and I do love some of our traditions. Some of them are so lovely!” This reminded me of a conversation I had with my father many years ago. I remember asking him why he did puja (the Hindu prayer ritual) everyday if he was an agnostic ? “Well”, he had said, “Because it is quite beautiful, isn’t it? The colors of the flowers, the fragrance of the incense sticks, the light of the lamp!” 🙂 Yeah, it is as simple as that because beauty and rationality aren’t mutually exclusive!
Donald went on to say, “I think it is quite important that each of us spends some time away from the small lives we lead day to day, some time to think of bigger things. I find that time at church.” Yesterday evening, I found that time, in the company of these wonderful men as they brought down the universe to earth.