Prof. Yash Pal – From asking questions to answering them

Prof. Yash Pal, one of the greatest scientists and communicators of our times passed away on July 24, 2017. I still remember the interview he had given me for my book Children Who Made it Big, which is about the childhood stories of contemporary personalities of eminence. He had not once looked at the clock, giving me all the time I needed and talked freely about all the little and big things that had happened during his childhood. It was the most pleasant experience for me, to have such a distinguished personality talking to me as if he had known me all his life! 

I am updating and sharing my review of his book Random Curiosity as my tribute, interspersed with my reminiscences of the meeting with Prof. Yash Pal.

Sir, we will miss you!

*****

Random Musings – Book Review

Children ask questions. Sometimes they are simple, at other times, profound. The one thing that is common to all questions is that they are all born out of curiosity. Often, children’s questions are met with impatience by the busy adults around them. Sometimes they are rebuffed because the adults themselves are nonplussed by the questions and don’t want to admit to it!  This includes parents and teachers.

But if there is one person, who is thrilled by the questions children ask and is ever eager to reply them as best as he can, it is Prof. Yashpal. He loves children and their questions – ‘maza aata hai!’ For, he is aware that a curious mind is a thinking mind and needs to be encouraged at all costs. So he painstakingly compiled the answers to nearly 300 random questions asked by children of all ages into a book titled Random Curiosity.

Many children would know the gentle, soft spoken, silver-haired scientist and academician from his many TV appearances explaining scientific phenomena, especially during historic eclipses. And I am sure millennials would fondly remember his science programme ‘Turning Point’ on DD?

I attended the book release function of this wonderful book, which was graced by an august body of scientists and guests headed by none other than our former President Late A.P.J.Abdul Kalam, another scientist who loved children.

Having reached the venue before time, I got the opportunity to renew my acquaintance with Prof.Yash Pal. His story in the book Children Who Made it Big had been titled  ‘The boy who asked questions,’ for he had been a youngster who was full of curiosity and wanted to know the whys and whereabouts of everything around him.

His story is replete with incidents any child can identify with; like the time when as a six-year-old, he had asked his father why the bogies of trains had those ‘things sticking out’, meaning the couplings. Instead of answering him, his father had asked the little boy why they were there. And little Yash had thought and thought and said, ‘I know! Because if they are not there, the compartments would dash against each other and break!’

Then the time when there was an earthquake and he had wanted to know how the earth spilt up. When his mother answered him that it was caused by the movements deep inside the earth, the young boy, then about nine,  put his ears to the ground for days afterwards to listen if the earth was moving!

From there to high school was one voyage of discovery for Yash Pal. But the day when the students were given a piece of copper wire to measure its specific heat in the physics lab was the day when he realized that the whole universe was decipherable! Looking at that wire, the Yash had thought that if one could actually measure something like heat, one could also measure other things – velocity of wind, force of earthquakes, distance to the stars, in short everything, if one had the tools to do so. He felt that the Universe was just another giant mechanism which could be deciphered by conducting specific experiments. And he went about mastering the tools — physics and its laws and the rest as they is history.

He went on to become an eminent physicist and the architect of satellite communication programme in India among other things.

Little wonder that the boy who asked questions grew up into a man who answered questions of curious children!

Coming back to his latest book for children, Random Curiosity is a treasure-trove of information that ventures to answer questions spanning a wide range of subjects. Some, he does with full scientific proof and detailed explanation, others he does with evidence gathered from various sources, yet others with some measure of uncertainty and still some where he admits to being puzzled himself and yet gives the best answer he could find from informed sources! That is the measure of Prof.Yashpal’s greatness and commitment towards children!

Take for example this question and his answer:

If we eat something sweet, a drink of tea afterwards seems less sweet than usual. Why is this so?

I will hazard an answer even though I am not so certain about its accuracy. Taste buds are receptors that lock on to the molecules that give us a sensation of sweetness. After eating something very sweet, these receptors are saturated with molecules. There are few ‘seats’ that are vacant; the signal of sweetness from things that are less sweet remains weak. Therefore things taste less sweet than they would otherwise.

To another question that asked whether the smoke emanating from havans was also beneficial to the atmosphere since the materials used in them were supposed to be  health friendly.  Yash Pal replies that it is beneficial in banishing some insects and smells good, but the combustion of hydrocarbons does release carbon-di-oxide and therefore it can’t be considered beneficial. Having said that, he immediately clarifies that the CO2 so released through havans is miniscule compared to what is released while cooking or generating electricity and running various industries.

Some random sample of questions from the book, which range from the mundane to the profound:

  • How do ants reach far away eatables?
  • What happens if protons and anti-protons are allowed to hit each other?
  • Why can’t we see air?
  • What are stem cells?
  • Can you explain the working of atom bomb?
  • How do fish get oxygen when lakes turn into ice during winter?

A visibly happy Prof. Yash Pal with children

All questions any curious child or youngster would ask, or at least wonder about. While answering the questions he never becomes the boring teacher explaining some scientific theory. Instead he is witty, chatty and down-to-earth, giving all his attention to the question, anxious to satisfy the questioner with his replies. No question is too trivial for him and he deals with each with equal deliberation.

This is what makes this book so absorbing, not only to children for whom it is intended, but also to curious adults who never got a chance to ask and get clarification to many of the questions found in it! The best thing is that all the questions are listed at the beginning and one can pick and choose which one to read. Each question is independent and as the title proclaims are randomly arranged, so one need not read it from front to back like other books.

This provides hours of fun learning about things that and his replies encourage scientific temper in children by stimulating their minds to think. The book is co-authored by his son Dr. Rahul Pal, who is a scientist with the National Institute of Immunology, Delhi.

Do pick up a copy if you have children at home and even if you don’t. I promise you it is worth it.

Random Curiosity by Prof. Yash Pal and Dr.Rahul Pal. Published by National Book Trust of India, Price Rs.140.

37 comments

  1. jaishvats · · Reply

    Of course I remember turning point ….all the explanations on that were simple but very interesting ….nice article ….all teachers need to encourage questioning minds

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  2. Very interesting post, Zephyr and you took me to the good old days of DD. The whole family was addicted to ‘Turning point’ in those days. My elder son replied and got a book as prize also. He was very child-friendly. He explained things so well that even we, elders who are not very sharp,were able to grasp things.

    I like the questions quoted here. Children’s familiar questions:)

    Great Man.

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  3. Archana · · Reply

    Wow.. reminds me of my days when i was a dud kid. my dad used to get me all books.. which i started reading after a decade of preservation in the book shelves.

    I would want to buy these for my kutti cousins. I am sure it ll be a good read for me as well.

    Cheers!!!

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    1. Hey no child is a dud kid! Sometimes the books are too ponderous to make sense when you get it as a gift, but begins making sense when you are slightly older. Random Curiosity can be understood by young teens and enjoyed by others upto 99+

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  4. a marvel in the contemporary science knowledge books… easy to understand and designed for curious readers

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    1. Good that you have read it. It makes a perfect gift for young people, doesn’t it?

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  5. Prof. Yash Pal seems to be a great personality. Unfortunately, I have never heard about him. One should have a lot of patience and detail to be able to answer such questions. That too convincing kids is not an easy job. The idea itself is quite interesting. I liked your blog. It has great content.

    Regards,

    Harsha

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    1. Thank you for the comment, Harsha. You are so right about answering children in a way to satisfy their curiosity. Prof.Yash Pal does that admirably, because he loved kids.

      Do visit again 🙂

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  6. dheeraj dhawan · · Reply

    thanx

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  7. dheeraj dhawan · · Reply

    am unable to find the book online & have checked with most of the stores in gurgaon..need a little help here

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    1. It is an NBT book. If you can’t find it in stores you can try their book shop at Vasant Kunj, Institutional Area.

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  8. Long time since I read anything on any blog. Apologies for the long self imposed exile.
    Dr. Yashpal is an interesting man and the book sounds even more interesting. A curious mind can ask a lot of questions. And its amazing that some of their questions can force an elder to think deep.

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    1. Hey Prateek, no sweat. I am glad you are back though. Prof.Yash Pal is not only interesting, he is approachable and also lively. At 86, he is still so child-like in his enthusiasm.

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  9. After a long time, I am reading about someone like Dr. Yashpal. It reminded me of old days when we used to watch his programme on DD. I do not know if the programme still continues on DD? The book you have mentioned appears interesting and would like to read once I return to India. Thanks for this information.

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    1. He is a fellow MPite, and he studied in JAbalpur! What I liked about him is that he still remembered me after more than a decade!

      No, the programme doesn’t come anymore — replaced by all the reality shows and Baba Ramdev vs Congress trash. It is a good gift for young people.

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  10. I need a copy desperately, tired of answering questions 😛

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    1. But the book has to be downsized for the very small children. But it helps since he has explained the topics so well even for a non-science person like me 🙂

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  11. your post is a timely reminder for me to give enough ear to my kid. He has started asking whys and hows and would only get more curious now. I will probably pick it up on my next visit to crossword.

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    1. Remember to answer every question your son asks. You can of course modify it to suit his age. you could do with some help and this book will provide it.

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  12. Yes, children do have some very interesting questions to ask and they often come up with equally interesting answers too! Will have to scout for a copy of this book soon..

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    1. It is interesting because it is not like an encyclopaedia. The questions are really arranged in a random manner to be interesting to the reader. There would be at least a few questions which we would have all wanted answers to, but didn’t find till now 🙂

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  13. Prof Yash Pal is associated with complicated s science and space studies and that he has come out with a book regarding children and their curious minds sounds very interesting. Yes, children do ask very simple questions which have complex answers.

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    1. No, Alka. He had demystified science for young people even on Turning Point, which used to be a very popular programme on DD many years ago. And he is very fond of children. Abdul Kalam’s love for them has been publicised enough, but not that of this equally great scientist. He is one of the few old people who could recall even minor incidents from his childhood, which says a lot about his not losing touch with the child in him.

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  14. Last time I tried asking too may questions, my grandfather decided to purchase 3 sets of books – a Knowledge Bank series (that actually has a question answer style), Young Scientist and the World Book Encyclopedia. I never, thereafter, had a dearth of information. As a kid, I even remember reading some of these books from cover to cover (yeah the encyclopedia volumes included) just because I found it so interesting.
    Today, the internet had also killed the need for these books since wikipedia and google between them hardly leave any question unanswered but I still can’t think of giving away/selling those books. Not only because they were bought by my grandfather but also because they were my first doors into the world of curiosity and answers. I was never asked to pipe down with the questions instead always being encouraged to satisfy the curiosity with the help of these books. Curiosity and answers to the same are probably what make us the people we are today. Or else we would all still be living in caves and hunting with stones!
    Reminds me of NatGeo’s current ad campaign “Live Curious”… why should we only be curious as kids? there’s so much scope to keep discovering lifelong only if we keep an open mind…

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    1. Pratibha · · Reply

      I liked…’why should we only be curious as kids’.
      As a teacher I love students asking ‘sensible’ questions. Believe me, when we grow up, youngers also contribute to our knowledge.
      And you & books. Less said, the better. If one deprives you of books, you can read the telephone directory also.

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      1. Nice to see the mother and son bantering 🙂

        Adults who learn with their kids are the best, because their brain never ages.

        Telephone directory? 😀

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        1. Pratibha · · Reply

          I am not joking. If he was ever asked to check the meaning/spelling of a word, he was too happy to oblige and then settle down with the dictionary to read it.

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          1. Oh, I used to love reading the dictionary too, in fact, still do 🙂

            My father used to read the bits of paper that used to be used as wrapping paper by grocers in those days. A reader is happy with anything to read, I guess 😀

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    2. Hey Siddharth! Nice to see you here after a long time. How have you been?

      you are so right about all of us keeping a curious mind regardless of our age. That is what makes Yash Pal what he is at the ripe age of 86! He is so full of energy and good cheer.

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      1. Hey ZM, don’t worry I’m subscribed to your blog and read every post (yeah even the guest ones). However, I don’t comment on all. Don’t mind but I only comment on what piques my attention/interest.

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        1. that means I have lost the art of writing 😦 since I have written on all kinds of topics including the L&M ones.

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  15. Wow! what lovely questions..Will definitely get this book for R once she grows up a bit..There was this program na on DD where he used to come once a week..I forgot which one 😦 But it was educative and it was fun as well..

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    1. It was Turning Point, which I have mentioned. He genuinely loves children as you can see from the pic and enjoys their company. Till R grows up, you can read it 🙂

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  16. Sounds good. I am sure kids’ questions’ flummox elders plenty and stimulate them to think too!

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    1. That’s so true! When they don’t have an answer, it is seldom that an adult accepts it though! But Yash Pal is not one of them.

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  17. sounds interesting..

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    1. It is. Do read it 🙂

      Like

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