Physics for entertainment

This is an article about my favorite books on physics that I wrote for TeacherPlus magazine. The original article is available here. I think that it points to something more than just Physics education. Take a look and see!

The mainstream educational discourse stridently insists that science and mathematics are the most important and also the most difficult subjects that children need to learn. Here are some contrary expert opinions:

Opinion 1
“If people do not believe that mathematics is simple, it is only because they do not realize how complicated life is.” – John von Neumann
(About John von Neumann, the Wikipedia says: Hungarian and later American pure and applied mathematician, physicist, inventor, polymath, and polyglot. As a 6-year-old, he could divide two 8-digit numbers in his head. By the age of 8, he was familiar with differential and integral calculus. Von Neumann’s reputed powers of speedy, massive memorization and recall allowed him to recite volumes of information, and even entire directories, with ease. It has been said that von Neumann’s intellect was absolutely unmatched.” I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann’s does not indicate a species superior to that of man,” said Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe of Cornell University.)

Opinion 2
“GNM Tyrell has put forward the terms ‘divergent’ and ‘convergent’ to distinguish problems which cannot be solved by logical reasoning from those that can. Life is being kept going by divergent problems which have to be ‘lived’ and are solved only in death. Convergent problems on the other hand are man’s most useful invention; they do not, as such, exist in reality, but are created by a process of abstraction. When they have been solved, the solution can be written down and passed on to others who can apply it without needing to reproduce the mental effort necessary to find it. If this were the case with human relations – in family life, economics, politics, education, and so forth… – well, I am at a loss how to finish the sentence, there would be no more human relations but only mechanical reactions; life would be a living death. Divergent problems, as it were, force man to strain himself to a level above himself; they demand and thus provoke the supply of, forces from a higher level, thus bringing love, beauty, goodness, and truth into our lives. It is only with the help of these higher forces that the opposites can be reconciled in the living situation.

The physical sciences and mathematics are concerned exclusively with convergent problems. That is why they can progress cumulatively, and each new generation can begin just where their forbears left off. The price, however, is a heavy one. Dealing exclusively with convergent problems does not lead into life but away from it.” – EF Schumacher
(The internationally influential economic thinker, writing in 1973, in his wonderful and extremely influential book ‘Small is Beautiful: A study of economics as if people mattered’)

Opinion 3
“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” – Albert Einstein

That, I think, nicely sets the context for this article.

When I was in secondary school, a decade before the collapse of the Soviet Union, I used to frequent a well-stocked Russian library, where I discovered the most beautiful books on science and maths. They had intriguing names like: ‘Experiments without explosions’, ‘This chancy, chancy, chancy world’, ‘Physics in your kitchen lab’, etc.; but the most enchanting ones I found were two books called ‘Physics for Entertainment’ written by Yakov Perelman.

Ya. Perelman, writing in the preface to the 13th edition of the book in 1936, estimated that during the 25 years of its existence, millions of people had read these books in the USSR alone. The idea behind the books and the unique presentation that converts dry theoretical knowledge into ‘entertainment’, is nicely summed up in the first paragraph of this preface. Ya. Perelman writes:

“The aim of this book is not so much to give you some fresh knowledge, as to help you learn what you already know’. In other words, my idea is to brush up and liven your basic knowledge of physics, and to teach you how to apply it in various ways. To achieve this purpose conundrums, brain-teasers, entertaining anecdotes and stories, amusing experiments, paradoxes and unexpected comparisons all dealing with physics and based on our everyday world and science-fiction are used.

I have tried my best both to arouse interest and to amuse, as I believe that the greater the interest one shows, the closer the heed one pays and the easier it is to grasp the meaning thus making for better knowledge.”

I have had the two volumes of ‘Physics for Entertainment’ for so long that I cannot now remember where I picked them up. You see, the problem is that Mir, the publishing company that brought out these popular science books, shut shop when the Soviet Union collapsed. So the only way to get the books was at old book shops or on the pavements of Daryaganj in New Delhi, or its equivalent in the other big cities. Also, it was pretty obvious that people who had these books in their collections would let go of them only when they were senile or dead.

I had not looked at the ones at home for a long time, when recently, a chance conversation put them firmly back in my mind. I was talking to some people from an NGO that works on school improvement and they had just got somebody to do an interactive physics workshop for a middle school. The people from the NGO were very sure that the workshop had been inspirational for the attending children but they were wondering how the model could be scaled up given its cost and the logistical impossibility of getting these inspiring science educators to all the schools that need them. And I got thinking of how I had been inspired to learn physics not from inspiring educators, but from inspiring books like ‘Physics for Entertainment’. That, like probably only books can do for most of us, opened my mind and sparked my imagination.

(‘Physics for Entertainment’ can be downloaded from here)

The pond and the swimming pool

Some years ago, we lived in a house with a pond and our two boys spent long hours swimming and lounging around in the water. It was like having a private swimming pool of our own. However, there is a fundamental difference between a pond and a swimming pool, and in this post I would like to talk about it.

What you notice about a pond is that it is alive – its an ecosystem, a self-contained world in itself. The plants and insects and animals that live in it appear to all be components of an ‘alive’ pond. The distinction will become clear when you see that swimming pools have energy-guzzling aeration, filtration and circulation systems that work hard to keep the water clean. Like a person on life support with a machine doing what occurs naturally and effortlessly in healthy people. In other words, a pond is a self-sustaining, effortless, natural system and the swimming pool, in contrast, is an energy-draining, effort-full, artificial system.

We can think of other natural/ artificial pairs like pond/ pool – for example, meadow/ lawn, forest/ plantation etc. An ecologist friend used to say that all of Kerala is one giant plantation. I point this out so that you are not deceived by the greenery in the photo above. It may look natural and forest-like but it is the greenery of an artificial plantation.

The pond/ pool idea serves as a good metaphor when applied to education. We can see that modern education is artificial and effort-full and pool-like. We need to move it in the direction of becoming natural and effortless and pond-like. I like to think that if we succeed, what has happened is Asli Shiksha.

What do you think?

Understanding modern education – Online course

Registration: Visit https://learn.aslishiksha.com -> Signup -> Verify email (Check spam folder if email not in Inbox) -> Login -> Buy course -> Launch course

For bulk registration (more than 10 participants): http://www.aslishiksha.com/bulkregistration.html

For other queries: Email us at learn@aslishiksha.com

Course details are as follows:

Time investment: 6-8 hours (40 minutes of audio-visual presentations, around 3 hours of reading material and around 3 hours of contemplative writing exercises)

When: The course has NO facilitator interaction and you can go through it at your own pace.

Chapter index:

Chapter 1: The problem with modern education
Chapter 2: Historical background
Chapter 3: Introduction to Asli Shiksha
Chapter 4: Drawing the attention or dhyaanakarshan vidhi
Chapter 5: Principles of Asli Shiksha
Chapter 6: Modernity and tradition
Chapter 7: What modernity does to us
Chapter 8: Sthiti and Gati
Chapter 9: Stepping-out

Each chapter has 6 segments:

Segment 1: Introspect (Self-reflective questions to set the context)
Segment 2: Listen (3-5 minute audio-visual presentation. Some samples of the listen segment are available on our YouTube channel here)
Segment 3: Contemplate on ‘Listen’ (Writing down takeaways)
Segment 4: Read (Reading material to deepen understanding)
Segment 5: Contemplate on ‘Read’ (Writing down takeaways)
Segment 6: Know (Some points to read and ponder)

If you go through the course and like it, please share it in your circles.

Namaste!

The Isa Upanishad illuminates an aspect of modernity

This post is offered with a head-bowed pranaam in the manner of the Isa Upanishad when it says…
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे
(This we have heard from the wise who have expounded it to us)

I don’t remember when I first started reading the Upanishads. I think it was probably just after I came out of college and started working. I remember being deeply moved by the lyrical quality of the unfamiliar language, that seemed just a little bit beyond the reach of understanding. And I remember the assurance with which the Upanishads spoke and the aura of wisdom they exuded.

I was reading the Isa Upanishad again and was struck by something that reminded me of what Pawanji talks about in our courses on Education and modernity. I thought I would present it here and see what you think…

The Isa Upanishad in its eighteen shlokas covers a vast territory. However, in its highly compressed message it still repeats twice, with only minor changes, a set of three shlokas. So, the Upanishad moves away from its terse tone and, through repetition, underlines the message given in 3 of its shlokas. With that as a preface, take a look at the shlokas and the English translation (not word-to-word) done by Eknath Easwaran.

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽविद्याम् उपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उविद्यायां रताः ॥ ९ ॥

अन्यद् एवाहुर् विद्ययान् यद् आहुर् अविद्यया ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे ॥ १० ॥

विद्यां चाविद्यां च यस् तद् वेदोभयं सह ।
अविद्यया मृत्युं तीर्त्वा विद्ययामृतम् अश्नुते ॥ ११ ॥

In dark night live those for whom
The world without alone is real; in night
Darker still, for whom the world within
Alone is real. The first leads to a life
Of action, the second to a life of meditation.
But those who combine action with meditation
Cross the sea of death through action
And enter into immortality
Through the practice of meditation.
So have we heard from the wise.

अन्धं तमः प्रविशन्ति येऽसम्भूतिम् उपासते ।
ततो भूय इव ते तमो य उ सम्भूत्यां रताः ॥ १२ ॥

अन्यद् एवाहुः संभवाद् अन्यद् आहुर् असंभवात् ।
इति शुश्रुम धीराणां ये नस् तद् विचचक्षिरे ॥ १३ ॥

संभूतिं च विनाशं च यस् तद् वेदोभयं सह ।
विनाशेन मृत्युं तीर्त्वा संभूत्यामृतम् अश्नुते ॥ १४ ॥

In dark night live those for whom the Lord
Is transcendent only; in night darker still,
For whom he is immanent only.
But those for whom he is transcendent
And immanent cross the sea of death
With the immanent and enter into
Immortality with the transcendent.
So have we heard from the wise.

The word pairs used in the two sets of shlokas are avidya/ vidya and asambhuti/ sambhuti (using ‘vinasa‘ instead of ‘asambhuti‘ in the 14th shloka). Both sets refer to gross/ subtle or outer/ inner worlds. And the message of the Upanishad is that, since these are two sides of the same reality, focusing on only one side leads to a dark, incomplete life. It tells us to engage with the world of action/ immanence where change and death exist and also to engage with the world of meditation/ transcendence which is the unchanging and immortal world.

And how this ties up with our course is that Pawanji keeps saying that modernity over-emphasizes the outer world of change and action and ignores or negates the inner world of unchanging Truth. In our workshops and courses we point out that a modern life focused on the outer is rudderless and leaves us vulnerable to external manipulation (by modern institutions like the market, state etc.). Whereas, taking decisions grounded in the inner leads to a spontaneous, sahaj outer life. The Isa Upanishad in its eighteen shlokas gives us a description of the territory and gives us indications on how we can navigate through this territory to live a full life.

What do you think?