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Heroes ...

I thought to jot down a few thoughts on some of the folks I admire ...

Jawaharlal Nehru — Some people are skeptical about Nehru. They say: “what did Nehru do?” Often, of course, they tend to have minimal knowledge of history. I happen to be truly a ‘student’ of history as I never studied it as part of a curriculum but have tried to read some of it as an adult. As I try to learn a little more about the man, I realize how ignorant I was and my admiration for his increases by leaps and bounds.

It’s easy to be skeptical … particularly in the modern Indian context where people in public life are so mired in corruption and all sorts of unethical practices. But one should not take one’s skepticism too far and latch on to some minor human imperfection of a man like Nehru and proceed to pass judgment on him on the basis of that slight imperfection. Well, I don’t know if I ever will get the time to get to read enough about Nehru and by Nehru (remembering that he was a prolific writer as well) to consider myself qualified enough to pass judgment on him. Suffice to say, he was more a man of the “21st century” though he lived in mid-20th century India than most Indians alive today.

I like the way M. J. Akbar describes him as: “the agnostic visionary of modern India.” My suspicion is that Nehru was only an agnostic because he was a public figure … that at heart, he was as much an atheist as me.

Thomas Jefferson — Another visionary who found nothing much to admire in Christianity. Of course, he wrote the Declaration of Independence at the age of 32 … It is astonishing that the institutions that the Founding Fathers founded to govern a newly created nation have endured for so long … the amount of prescience is just astonishing … the present young generation of Indians already considers the story of India’s independence which happened some six or seven decades ago to be of little relevance … while Americans still talk of the Founding Fathers after two centuries.

Abraham Lincoln — A self-made man who can be an inspiring role model for any human being anywhere around the world and also a story of a man that can happen … as they say … ‘only in America.’ His story is particularly inspiring as it shows the power of ideas and how men of ideas can make a difference through being public figures. Of course, other public figures come to mind as well: FDR, Winston Churchill, etc.

JFK/RFK — They didn’t achieve too much really. They were like Obama of today — held lots of promise but assassinated before they could either prove their mettle or their opponents proved that they had no ‘substance’ and were just handsome, Irish cads. But, again, to some extent they showed the power of ideas in public life and so admirable …

Arundhati Roy — Being an iconoclast is important to me. Particularly in a society like India where following the herd is considered to be an admirable quality, she has the courage to question many forms of ‘conventional wisdom.’ It’s easy to criticize her as an worthless ‘armchair intellectual’ who does nothing to help India by pointing out all the warts and imperfections and not singing paeans to the wonders of ‘liberalization’ and ‘globalization,’ I think it’s important not to hide all the problems under the carpet while only talking about the tiny islands of prosperity and the other usual meaningless obsessions that Indians have … obsessions such as cricket, Bollywood, Page 3 stuff, salacious and voyeuristic stuff of all sorts.

Nandan Nilekani & N. R. Narayan Murthy — Men who built a company without falling prey to the easy temptation to cut corners. In India, being a ‘businessman’ used to be considered a synonym with being a ‘crook,’ but this talented duo showed that one could run an ‘ethical business’ and that there was nothing oxymoronic about the phrase. Of course, many factors let them achieve what they have. Their genius lies in spotting an opportunity pretty early in the day and pursuing the opportunity with dogged determination in spite of many obstacles … Bill Gates was a genius as well who spotted a similar opportunity before almost anyone else and created wealth for himself and built a great company.

Albert Einstein — The life of Einstein shows that if you believe in something and you happen to be the only person in the whole wide world who believes in it and everybody else believes you’re wrong, you could still be ‘right’ and the whole world ‘wrong.’ That’s an important lesson to remember for everyone. We in India are fond of and fondly follow many forms of ‘received wisdom.’ Einstein also famously said that he treated everyone equally: whether a janitor or a billionaire … something along those lines. He lived his life with humility. Many, many lessons indeed. His life was his message, one can say, quoting Gandhi out of context. Of course, one can easily add Gandhi to this list … but I never said that this list was meant to be ‘exhaustive.’

Richard Feynman — He was one of those guys who can be truly described as a ‘genius.’ The word is misused sometimes … applied too easily to all and sundry … but it’s absolutely apt to use the word to describe Richard Feynman. He was such a gifted physicist that how his mind worked in Physics was a mystery to even other professional physicists. He had incredible mental capabilities in performing mathematical computations. His flashes of mental brilliance dazzled his contemporaries. He had deep skepticism about religion, about anything ‘formal,’ and about authority.

Paul Dirac — Paul Dirac was one of the founders of Quantum Physics. He had incredible powers of insights into the workings of nature. He was in many ways a ‘strange’ man personally. His mathematical prowess was legendary. He will forever remain a seminal figure in the story of Physics as long as humans continue to be a technological civilization. Not for nothing did he win a Nobel Prize at the age of 31.

Werner Heisenberg — Heisenberg had some breathtaking insights into the workings of the physical world at the quantum level. The Uncertainty Principle that bears his name goes so much against common sense that even Einstein refused to accept it as something representing the reality of nature. But it remains a central principle of Quantum Physics even today and sets the limits of miniaturization.

Stephen Hawking — Stephen Hawking has probably accomplished more in terms of fame than real accomplishment. His contributions to Physics are in the arena of black hole physics … certainly one of the most interesting physical concepts. His personal story, however, is truly inspiring. As many other professional scientists, Hawking is deeply skeptical about the concept of ‘God’ saying … ‘it’s difficult to imagine that God cares about us or even knows about our existence.’

S. Chandrasekhar — An Indian theoretician who had prodigious mathematical powers and has made immense contributions to the world of Physics. His accomplishments are probably better appreciated outside of India than inside India. Even NASA honors him with the X-ray space telescope being named as ‘Chandra’ in his honor. His students include Carl Sagan … there are many interesting anecdotes about the man … about how strict he was as a teacher/professor. His works in stellar dynamics, radiative transfer, and other domains continue to be compulsory reading for students.

S. Ramanujan — Ramanujan was a ‘genius’ mathematician in a world that seems to be so full of them. Ramanujan can stand shoulder to shoulder in any gathering of mathematicians … he was a genius mathematical creature who achieved incredible feats without any formal training in mathematics. He virtually reinvented 150 years of mathematics that had unfortunately been already discovered by others like Gauss before him. He lived for only 32 years of course and yet left more than 1,000 theorems that continue to occupy mathematicians even today. One wonders how much more he would have achieved if he had lived a normal human lifespan …

Carl Sagan — Carl Sagan was a scientist who was not necessarily confined to one domain or area of science. He was a planetary biologist who did professional scientific work on the planets of Venus and Mars. He was involved with many of NASA’s unmanned spacecraft explorations of those planets. More than his scientific work though, it was his role as a popularizer of science that is probably more important. Like science fiction writers, his books and TV programs about science must have inspired many youngsters to pursue a scientific career. His prodigious and wide-ranging imagination makes him almost a unique figure in the history of science.

Freeman Dyson — Not many childhood prodigies continue to make the grade as adults. That is strange and I would love to look at some study which explores what happens to these young geniuses as they grow up and older. This does not apply to Freeman Dyson, however. He was a prodigy who continued to show remarkable mathematical ability as an adult and worked with many of the great physicists of his generation including Richard Feynman. He describes himself as a ‘subversive,’ a descriptive that I like. It’s important in free societies to have subversives like him who do not simply and unquestioningly accept ‘conventional wisdom’ as the truth. Recently, he has become a forceful opponent of ‘global warming’ agreeing with scientists who say that there is no scientific basis for the claims of global warming made by scientists. While I think the preponderance of evidence and peer-reviewed science points to a clear linkage between human activity and a rising trend in global temperatures, and therefore would have to disagree with Dyson, that’s no reason not to admire him.


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