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Inspirational Heroes

I want to talk about real heroes today à not the kind we elevate to the status of demi-gods too easily and unthinkingly.

“There’s a secret society of geniuses who weave and shape the fabric of our culture,” somebody had said about Subrahmanian Chandrasekhar (he was known among his colleagues as ‘Chandra’) on the occasion of awarding a medal to Chandra.

Yes. Chandra was such a genius and so was Srinivasa Ramanujan.

It is not widely known that one of NASA’s space telescopes (‘Great Observatories’) is named after him? à the Chandra X-Ray Observatory. The most well-known of the space telescopes is of course the Hubble Space Telescope which has revealed so much about the wonders of our universe in its 20 year long lifetime.

Every educated person must consider it his or her bounden duty to be acquainted with the images and the results of these great space projects.

To give just a bit of a primer about Chandra, some of his areas of work included these
·         stellar structure,
·         theory of white dwarfs,
·         stellar dynamics, theory of radiative transfer,
·         quantum theory of the negative ion of Hydrogen,
·         hydrodynamic and hydromagnetic stability,
·         equilibrium and the stability of ellipsoidal figures of equilibrium,
·         general relativity. mathematical theory of black holes and theory of colliding gravitational waves.
Just reflect for a moment – if you will – about the greatness of the scientific endeavor which has given us mere humans the tools – mathematical – which we can manipulate to understand the interiors and evolution of stars or when a star will turn into a black hole and when it will end up as a white dwarf or a neutron star.

If we invest the willpower and the time and at least go through Chandra’s biography written by Kameshwar Wali, I think that will be a highly enriching experience and we will be enormously enriched in our mental lives and dare I say, we will become more civilized à and become better human beings for having acquainted ourselves with the live of this great man … however slightly and tangentially.

What about the Ramanujan, the one true genius mathematician India has produced in the last one thousand years? Sadly, the definitive biography of this genius has been written by a non-Indian. Be that as it may, I think every educated Indian should have read Robert Kanigel’s The Man Who Knew Infinity. Not that after reading the book, you will gain much of an understanding into the man named Ramanujan à it is just that you will have been ennobled for having made the effort to spend some time in the company of his memory, learning about some of the astonishing mathematical feats of this truly singular man.

Ramanujan died at the age of 32. His imprint in the areas of mathematics that he touched upon remains forever indelible. How many of us can dare to even think that we will have accomplished so much by the age of 32 that people will remember us. Indeed, very few ever make fundamental contributions to human learning after living for 60 … or 80 years.

“Randy Pausch was never a particularly religious man, and when they diagnosed his final cancer, he joked that his only "death-bed conversion" would be to exchange his PC for a new Apple Mac. Yet the computer science professor realised an extraordinary ability to convert others, becoming what he called a "media-based inspirer" who helped millions appreciate the briefness and sanctity of life.”

That’s how the obituary of Randy Pausch started in a UK newspaper. We have all heard of this famous professor, have not we? No? Then go ahead and become one more person who has seen his famous Last Lecture video on YouTube which has so far been seen by more than 15 million people. This is a video which he made after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and told that he had months to live. Imagine if you are 47 years old – or at any age really – and the doctor delivers that death sentence to you. How would you react?

We all must sometimes pause from the frenetic pace of living everyday and reflect about our purpose in life and why we are here and what are we doing here. Dr. Pausch presents his perspective about the meaning of life and for him it was about achieving his childhood dreams.

Go ahead – watch the video and be inspired.

While talking of deaths from cancer, it is clearly pertinent to mention two other men who died in the last year from cancer as well à Christopher Hitchens and Steve Jobs.

Who hasn’t heard of Jobs and his seminal contributions to the world of technology and how he essentially transformed many industries such as smartphones and music players. His untimely death from cancer resulted in many Silicon Valley giants talking about Jobs’ legacy. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs is a must read if you wish to learn about the extraordinary journey of this man who was abandoned as a kid, was adopted, was a drop out from college, visited India for six months when he was in his early 20s, started a technology company in his father’s garage, built it into the world’s first maker of personal computers, became rich beyond his dreams, experienced abandonment again as his own company’s board fired him as the CEO, started more companies … including a pioneer in movie animation called Pixar, was hired back to Apple as the company was faltering and was almost on the verge of collapsing, revived Apple to make it the Most Valuable Company on Wall Street and in the World. And all this before even he reached that standard ‘retirement’ age of 60. Surely one has got to wonder what more he would have achieved if he had lived longer.
Christopher Hitchens has a special place in my heart à he gave me courage with his writings … to say things that I wanted to say and not to mince words. Every educated person should consider it his or her duty to watch Hitchens – whether giving lectures on stage or participating in friendly discussions with fellow writers such as Salman Rushdie or debating opponents as diverse as Tony Blair to Shashi Tharoor.

The Hitch – as he was popularly known – died too soon too but then he was an extravagant connoisseur of cigarettes and Johnny Walker. His books on topics such as God have sold millions of copies in all à clearly, many people have benefited from Hitchens’ clear-sighted views on the topic of religion and many other topics.

Among other books, Hitchens wrote a book too about Mother Teresa criticizing her. Indians should certainly acquaint themselves with these controversial aspects of the ‘Mother.’ Hitchens and Dr. Aroup Chatterjee – who has also written a book detailing the falsehoods associated with Teresa – were the only two individuals who opposed the process of beatification of Mother Teresa.

There are many more such heroes. May be we’ll talk about them in the future.

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