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16.03.2018

It was 2007 and Professor Sundar Sarukkai was telling his philosophy class in Christ College, Bangalore, that Einstein was basically describing the shape of time with his equations. He was blowing my mind. Time, Sarukkai explained, is not just a concept; it is as real as a pen or piece of paper. I, an undergraduate studying journalism and literature, went back from class to try and read Einstein’s work on relativity. I couldn’t get past his differential equations.

I drifted, instead, to the works of Stephen Hawking. As I started reading A Brief History of Time, I felt a sense of familiarity: a feeling that I had heard these ideas already. It wasn't imaginary or coincidental; it was, in fact, a resonance from my childhood.

I grew up in Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh in the 1990s. My parents were part of the People’s Science Movement, a network of organisations from across India aiming to popularise science and fight superstition. My father, M Geyanand, was then a young, practising medical doctor and activist, thirsty for scientific knowledge. He had already read a lot of pop science in Telugu, “but this literature lacked scientific rigour,” he said, later.

Eager to learn about the origins of the universe in the most scientific way possible, he found Stephen Hawking, who became one of the biggest influences on his own thought. “Hawking brought real science to this story of the universe we already knew,” my father said. Hawking, like him, was an atheist; he legitimised and strengthened the work of many like my father.

During school holidays, my father and mother would take me along to the workshops they helped organise for the Movement. The most exciting part of some of these meetings happened after dinner, when a facilitator did a "sky watch" with the participants. Participants would look up at the night sky while the facilitator explained the positions of stars and the history behind the myths that surround the shapes of constellations.

During the day, they would hold sessions to familiarise participants with the origin of the universe, black holes, stellar nurseries and red giants. My uncle, V Jayachandra, often took a session called ‘The Universe And Its Origins.’ “It was essential to read Stephen Hawking to understand black holes and the universe,” he recollected.

Those sky-gazing evenings were my first taste of Hawking’s ideas. They inspired me about the possibilities of space travel and time travel. Whenever adults asked me about my future plans, I would say that I wanted to be an astronaut. I even glued my passport-photo to a space suit I had cut out from a Telugu newspaper to look like an astronaut. This cutout still remains in our family album.

I would re-read this one book about astronomy projects for children my father got me from somewhere. As a teenager, I even made a telescope following the instructions from that book to see the craters on the moon. My favourite film as a child was Aditya 369, a Telugu film about a time machine which allowed the protagonists to travel back to the sixteenth century and visit the Vijayanagara empire. Aditya 369 got many of us excited about time travel without going into its complex mathematical paradoxes.

Returning to this terrain as a college student, I found that Einstein’s thought experiment stopped at those paradoxes, while Hawking’s scientific attitude took, essentially, the approach that travelling through time wasn’t all that difficult. In a 2010 article titled “How to build a Time Machine?” published in the Daily Mail, Hawking elaborated on Time Travel: “Imagine that the train left the station on January 1, 2050. It circles Earth over and over again [at close to the speed of light] for 100 years before finally coming to a halt on New Year's Day, 2150. The passengers will have only lived one week because time is slowed down that much inside the train. When they got out they'd find a very different world from the one they'd left. In one week they'd have travelled 100 years into the future.”

Such an exciting concept of time: it ticks at different rates at different situations. (Christopher Nolan used it for Interstellar, too.) But by this time I had given up - rebelled, in, fact - against a science education. Time had been reduced to the meaningless and boring (t) at the end of equations in my school textbooks. The chapters about the universe and cosmos had always been amongst the last to be taught, least important from the point of view of exam topics. My teachers were unenthusiastic - I remember watching Carl Sagan’s Cosmos and wondering how the adults around me managed to scare me away from subjects that sounded so exciting when Sagan talked about them.

Eventually, the classroom dampened most of my excitement about electromagnetism, gravity and quantum theory. But all the while, I had my eyes up in the sky, far from my school teachers. After I decided not to prepare for my medical entrance exams, I would often sleep alone at night on the terrace of our house and try not to worry about my career. I would stare up at the night sky and let my thoughts drift.

Years later, when Sundar Sarukkai was to teach me that time is a funny thing that also has a shape, it was the excitement of those nights that he rekindled, when I had dreamt of other solar systems in our Milky Way, and of the possibility of alien life. That was how I returned to discover for myself the scientist whose ideas had so thrilled my parents. Before I had ever read A Brief History Of Time, Stephen Hawking had bestowed me, too, with perspective. Thanks to him, I could remind myself that my career was too minuscule to matter on a cosmic scale, and wander off into the distant worlds of the night sky I slept under.

Rahul M is a journalist based out of Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh, and a Fellow with the People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI).

Photo credit: Bob Moran for The Telegraph

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