Researchers in lockdown: Notes of a physics professor
07/09/2020 - 09:06
Just before the national lockdown was announced for the first time, some members of my family had travelled down to Hyderabad, where I currently live. We had arranged to spend time together during breaks from my work, planned walks in my green and wooded campus, and contemplated short treks amidst the strange rocks and stone formations nearby that rested precariously balanced on each other. But barely three days after their arrival, the four of us found ourselves confined to my 1800 sq. ft apartment. We found ourselves facing an overzealous management and some vigilante residents gripped by the fear of the dreaded virus imposing all manner of curbs on the freedoms of movement normally taken for granted!
It took some time for the gravity of the situation to sink in. What! No classes anymore? The untidy chai place that I ambled off to after a tiring class was now out of reach. In the next few days, the reality of the radical readjustments that I would have to make to my routine started to sink in. My mind conjured up the spectre of an Armageddon - we’d reached the time of the final reckoning. Suddenly, everything I taught my students seemed like a waste. Of what value were the lengthy explanations I gave my students on spectroscopy? How did it matter that a single isolated atom has no preferred axis for quantifying its parameters? Would anyone care henceforth about how we measure the total Hydrogen content in the universe?
I simply couldn’t believe this would last as long, and with such impact on our lives, as it has done, even as my well-meaning and erudite physicist friends busily modelled the R0, and the time it would take for the curve to flatten. Meanwhile what certainly did flatten, as the days rolled by, were my spirit and enthusiasm.
My nine-year-old daughter, however, seemed to respond to the situation somewhat differently. That something was wrong outside had been amply conveyed to her, with us insisting that she strictly adhere to all the hygiene protocols that we’d been advised to stick to. But all of a sudden, she was free from the structured environment that she usually faced with school, homework, dance lessons, bedtime etc. This seemed to set off her creative side, from finding ways of getting involved in the house-cleaning routines with forceful insistence (despite various protestations from the elders) to multitasking in front of the TV with a bowl of chips and her big sketchbook.
She also turned keenly observant: the spiders that wove their cobwebs surreptitiously despite our meticulous efforts to make the apartment Corona-free, simultaneously invoked deep interest and fear in her. Our mobile phones turned quite handy when she took to photographing the bugs that visited us on the little balcony we inhabited each afternoon - the only “outing” we got to have - and this activity seemed to lessen her fear of these afternoon visitors to some extent.
The lives of “others” also turned immensely interesting. The routines of the residents of the buildings opposite ours led us to indulge in some backyard anthropology. I watched, over a month and a half, as my clean-shaven techie neighbours slowly started resembling junkies with their straggly looks and laconic movements. All forms of exercise outside of our living premises had been banned.
All around us, high rises that had mushroomed with deafening construction noises before the COVID crisis had grown silent. However, a couple of complexes right next to us had a few construction workers wandering around aimlessly. It seemed that not everyone had managed to flee to their villages. It wasn’t too long before the news was filled with dreadful stories of the tremendous hardships migrant workers were facing in their attempts to go back to their homes in far-flung corners of the country. Yet they were just stories we heard, as we sat around in our confinement.
One day, I observed a small crowd of residents gather outside our building, hidden behind face masks and flagging off a minivan. A few hours later I found a post on our apartment complex website announcing a van loaded with food for the stranded migrants next door! This refreshing news assured me that little acts of kindness do matter.
In the next few days, as the consequences of the lockdown became apparent and my university showed no signs of reopening, I made a brave attempt to visit my campus after obtaining due permissions. As I drove up the path approaching the school, some peacocks scampered away from my path. In the building, I was greeted by a deathly silence. The corridors were still, dusty, with a few empty plastic bottles occasionally rolling by from the light breeze. Two stray dogs that normally visit the premises after school hours ran up to me barking and seemed happy to see me back. It was almost as if they were trying to tell me to get things rolling as before. I felt bad for not bringing along something to feed them. But then, I just gathered the books I intended to use when I started teaching online, something that we had been instructed to do with immediate effect, and left.
I made some queries to my students while adapting my courses for online teaching. This elicited responses that reflected the difficulty of their situations. Many in my class, who hailed from remote villages of India, complained of lack of access to a good internet connection. Many also complained of the frequent power cuts while some places had no power supply at all. Faced with these challenges I decided to wind up the atomic and molecular physics course I was teaching them and email them the class notes on unfinished parts of the syllabus. Strangely, I felt some relief in doing so!
However, it was not all downhill on the teaching front. Another course that I taught along with a colleague - an exploration of how physics connects with other forms of intellectual activities - attracted quite a few students from across disciplines, who didn’t seem to suffer from the vagaries of the internet so much. This course had discussions on the scientific method (and if there is one), physics, and religion, with some history thrown in. The term papers that we have just received and are evaluating make an eclectic list: from a paper on physics and films to one on science and communal violence and another on the connection of physics with spiritual expression. This is surely a welcome act of creativity from these students and gives me hope.
With more time on hand and reduced anxiety about deadlines from the workplace, I found that the mind “could be let loose to wander”. I reached for my guitar, which had been lying in a corner so far, tuned it and started taking lessons from online sites. It felt good exploring my “heart mode” after staying so long in “head mode” from physics. I brushed the dust off my collection of poetry and read them with attention and care. The understanding and insights on the world coming from artists, musicians and poets were so striking. Just a single word or phrase in a prose piece or a poem describing an aspect of nature or a physical event could so exactly capture the essence of the thing. Such crafting of the word, the exactness of description, could become a microscope to the “inner” eye, magnifying and making us see further. I started to think about how we are destroying, especially in India, the idea of a liberal education. Surely, history, philosophy, art, music, and poetry have value to offer in shaping a good scientist.
I seized the brief window when interstate travel was permitted, in the first week of May, and drove to my home city, Bangalore, with my family. I’ve completed my home-quarantine period and even visited the department I used to work in, where I discussed the present situation my masked former colleagues - the mess our economy is in and the miseries of our migrant workers. I’ve been trying to find out if any breakthrough in modelling the COVID spread has been made, but am yet to come across one. I’m sure one will hear an announcement soon on this, once again affirming the untiring spirit of inquiry and perseverance of humans.
Sharath Ananthamurthy is a Professor in the School of Physics, University of Hyderabad