Specular Reflections
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Thoughts on Life, Science, Writing and the Universe at Large

Sunday, October 30, 2005
Yesterday at around 5:30 pm local time, there were three terrorist bomb blasts in Delhi, in three crowded areas.

One of the areas was Sarojini Nagar market, which is where my family shops very often. We've known --- bargained with, exchanged family news with --- the shopkeepers for years. It is so crowded that people are literally crammed like sardines --- there's barely any elbow room. The blast took place near a fruit juice stand in the part known as Babu market. I was there last during my August visit. This morning the shirt I wore (I realized later) was one of the many my mother had bought for me there.

I saw a picture just now that I think is of that area. It is smashed, charred almost beyond recognition.

My father called us to say that they were all right. They are checking on other family and friends. The holiday spirit is more than a little dampened.

This is one of those times when it is hard to be so far away. I've been thinking about nothing else for the last couple of days, despite being busy with other activities. But it has also been hard to share. I've heard my American friends chat about their various daily pursuits and felt strangely disconnected from it all. I suppose part of it is that India is for them so unreal, so far away, that it might as well not exist.

It's not been a good year for that part of the world. Just over a year ago was the killer tsunami, then the Indo-Pak earthquake. The two governments pushed aside their diferences and vowed to work together. This was probably too much for the terrorists (the latest reports say that Islamic terrorists under the sway of the infamous Lashkar-e-tayyaba have claimed responsibility).

Terrorists of all faiths are brothers, whether or not they fight under the same banner, because spreading terror, discord and hatred is their true religion. Imagine plotting to set off bombs at a time when the markets would be most crowded with shoppers. Imagine planning it all not caring who lived or died. There were Muslims out there too, shopping for Eid, as the Hindus were out shopping for Diwali. I have to say that my imagination fails me.

I hope that these monsters are caught and punished. I hope that this act of hatred does not engender more hatred, as it often seems to do. Because it is when you become your enemy that you are truly lost.

I've been waiting for it to be morning there so I can call again. I also need to call some Delhi friends who haven't replied to my email. Under ordinary circumstances I would just assume they were too busy. But now it is different.

Diwali is on Tuesday. We didn't have major plans --- it is always difficult on a workday --- but I think we'll do a little rangoli, light a few lamps. Indian holidays are always rather depressing when you are far from home, because there is no one else around who is celebrating with you, but darkness calls for light, the light of hope. After all, in any campaign against terror, hope is the first step, the first act of defiance.

Isha vasyam idam sarvam.

posted by Vandana 4:34 PM
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Wednesday, October 12, 2005
Walking in the rain in the cold of the world

Normally I would never go out in this weather. It's been drippy, dreary and cold for several days now. But there's the dog, and he needs his potty walks and his exercise, so I'm out three times a day, in all kinds of weather. He's young and enthusiastic, and the way he stands and sniffs the breeze, senses aquiver, makes me feel like there is a point to standing shoulders hunched while the rain dribbles down. My old dog was too old to want to go more than a few steps from home, but even he put me in a similar situation. After a while you realize there is no point being grumpy, and that there is beauty and interest in the world even when the rain sends an icy rivulet snaking down your neck. There are squirrels frantic with gathering nuts, like housewives hitting the stores just before a snowstorm. Very domestic. I don't think I'll be too surprised if I see one in an apron. Fall leaves on the black, wet asphalt, in colors that defy the grayness: reds, ochres, yellows. A cat slinking through bushes, wary dark eyes trained on dog who jerks madly at the leash. He's excited by everything. Alive in the world.

Shoes squelching through soggy ground, cars splashing by, drip drip drip from the leaves overhead. A small temporal window in the mad rush of the day that lets me think a while (papers to grade, neutron stars, what to cook for dinner, etc.) or even better, to not think at all. To just be. An awareness taking a walk with dog.

posted by Vandana 8:49 PM
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Sunday, October 09, 2005
Much has happened since I wrote last. We've given to the relief efforts for that horrible disaster, Katrina, made even worse by the criminal negligence of the Federal government. And today there's the news of an earthquake in Kashmir. This seems to be the year for natural disasters, to say the least. Nature's gone all melodramatic on us. Tragedy upon tragedy, with human suffering and stupidity and greed enough to make you weep...

I've not had time to write; it is rare during the semester, anyway, because I'm mostly distracted by teaching and thinking about physics and drowning in a sea of papers to grade. But I am going to try to squeeze in the odd paragraph or two, if only because it allows me a moment to sit back and reflect. Usually I have some ideas (for stories and/or teaching) during the semester that fall by the wayside due to the lack of time, but what is interesting to me is that these ideas arise from whatever I might be teaching at the time. And this blog may be a good place to record random musings on physics and how it is part of the continuum of our experience.

For instance when I was teaching engineering physics last spring we did a cool problem in electricity, calculating the electric field of a uniformly charged ring. Pretty standard. But it occured to me a little late that you could use this to explain why Larry Niven's original Ringworld would be inherently unstable (although Ringworld is gravitational the analysis is similar). (Niven apparently changed the design of his world once he was told about this. I have to admit I haven't read him, except for a couple of short stories). It also made me wonder what it would be like to live on a world that always had some net electric charge, or violent electrical activity. We know that Mars and the Moon are both subject to charging phenomena, and that part of the danger to humans being there would be that you'd keep getting zapped. But what would it be like to live like that all the time, or to evolve on such a world? Hmm....

I've started coming up with homework problems that are rather science fictional, such as figuring out what a universe that possessed three electric charges would be like. This is fun stuff.

The other thing that teaching gives me a chance to do is to mull over things that I had to rush through in graduate school. Such as Newton's Laws of Motion. You don't appreciate them in their entirety unless you try to teach them to undergraduates. The first semester I taught, two years ago (after a 9-yr break with academia) I remember thinking about Newton's third law for a whole month. I'd be walking up and down the street with my dog, thinking about it. And inertia is another thing. What kind of universe would it be, if we didn't have the law of inertia? Where undisturbed objects at rest refused to stay at rest? I also wondered if there was a deeper reason for the property of inertia. And then discovered a bunch of papers in which physicists speculate about that very question.

I was talking to a woman today, a talented poet. We talked about writing for a bit, and then she asked me what I taught. I said "physics," but because I didn't want to get the usual reaction (varying between awe and revulsion) I quickly followed that with: "...you know, Nature's poetry." Her facial muscles did a quick double-take and she said something to the effect of "you know, nobody's ever put it quite like that before! But it's true!"

Actually physics is our attempt at deciphering Nature's poetry. I wish more people would see it like that!

Time to go. A wild horde of undergraduate papers is calling.

posted by Vandana 3:31 PM
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