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?
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.