Monday, 18 July 2016

Science Yatra to the USA

Around this day last year, July 16, 2015, I visited the United States after a fifteen year hiatus. I lived, studied, and worked in the US between 1991 and 2000, when I returned to India , hoping to embark on a writing career, which never took off – I don’t think I have the discipline to be a writer. In 2000, I thought that what I wanted out of life was a career in a different field for every decade of my life. Now I realize that I need not have conceptually compartmentalized my life by decades. I can be interested in multiple things concurrently, though perhaps I cant really have a career in any of them.

Since I quit my software career, I have been mostly reading books, on a variety of subjects. Three subjects which I found boring in my teens and twenties, Art, Biology and Economics, have captured my attention in the last ten years or so. In the last couple of years, especially after reading Thomas Hager’s excellent book, The Alchemy of Air, on the Haber Bosch process, I have been fascinated by Chemistry and its modern history – and how poorly this history is explained to us or discussed in public fora.

But in the last few years, I have had a chance to travel to some parts of India, mostly visiting temples, more for their art, sculputre and painting, than for spiritual or religious pursuit. Occasionally, in India, I have visited places that provoke scientific curiosity or are famous for a scientist / mathematician, like :

·         the Calcutta Botanical Gardens
·         the Trivandrum Museum which has a marvelous Biology exhibit, especially, a superb Invertebrates section
·         Ramanujan museum in Royapuram, Madras
·         Ramanujan house in Kumbakonam
·         Vishveshvarayya Museum, Bangalore
·         Gass Forest Museum, Coimbatore, which has a fantastic butterfly collection
·         Gunduperumbedu fossil site, near Sriperumbudur, TN
·         Tiruvakkarai fossil site, near Vilupuram, TN

Unfortunately, except for the fossil sites, almost everything related to science in India, is of the British period or later. I would have loved to visit an Aryabhata museum in Bihar, a Varahamihira museum in Ujjain or a Brahmagupta musuem in Rajasthan – or even their birthplaces. We have no such thing; there are even scholarly disputes over where they were born or which city they lived in.

Anyway, ever since I read books like Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, Alfred Russel Wallace’s Contributions to the Theory of natural selection, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel and perused portions of Henry Bates’ Naturalist on the River Amazons, Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of a New Continent, and most influentially, Iain McCalman’s book Darwin’s Armada, I developed the urge to travel the world, and see its scientific treasures, not just its artistic wonders or other monuments, mostly political. My innate laziness, ridiculous visa hassles, extreme fussiness and wariness over food, and lack of like-minded travel companions have held me back from doing indulging. I’ve wanted to visit Europe, especially Germany, Greece and Italy for the last three years. Similarly Brazil, Mexico, China, Japan, and of course, in the footsteps of Wallace to the islands of Indonesia. I’m even quite tempted to visit Baghdad, scientific centre of the 8th and 9th centuries, though it’s perhaps not suitable now. And Khwarizem, home of two all times greats, Muhammad bin Musa al Khwarizmi and Muhammad bin Ahmad al Biruni.

Considering all this, it was simply easier to visit the US. I already had a visa, and I could see friends and family there. Also food is not a problem in the USA, and I was looking forward to various cuisines I became accustomed to in the years when I lived there. I had a multi-city tour planned, which didn’t work out, because I had some problem renting a car, but it turned out to be good luck, because this way I spent less time traveling between cities and more time visiting actual places of interest. Everywhere I went, except LA, I ended up staying with family.

These are the places of scientific interest which I visited in the US

·         July 24 - Golden Gate Park, San Francisco
·         July 25 - Botanical Garden in the Golden Gate Park
·         July 27 - Stanford University campus tour, Palo Alto
·         July 28 - Computer History Museum, Mountain View, California
·         Aug 1 - Atlanta Botanical Garden
·         Aug 6 - Natural History Museum, Washington DC
·         Aug 7 - Aviation and Space Museum, Washington DC
·         Aug 9 - Benjamin Franklin Museum, Philadelphia
·         Aug 10 - American History Museum (Edison exhibit), Washington DC
·         Aug 13 - Norman Borlaug Center, College Station, Texas

I started the visit with a tour of popular tourist spots in southern California – Seaworld in San Diego and Disneyland and Universal Studios in Los Angeles. The tour of the Library of Congress, especially its paintings and statues turned out to be as substantially about a vision of Science, as of books in general. I got a lot of advice from various people on places to visit, but I haven’t written about most of the places I visited, yet, except San Francisco Botanical Garden and the first Google computer at Stanford. And Facebook has started to toss up memories from last year. I will write about some of these in the next couple of months. I regret not going again this summer; I should have planned visits to Chitchen Itza and Tenochtitlan and of course, the Burgess Shale, in Canada.

If you have undertaken a Science Yatra of some sort, please let me know. I’d love to read about it, and perhaps visit the sites.

US Science Yatra Essays

ஞானதேவதைகள்The paintings in the Library of Congress (in Tamil)

India Science Yatra Essays

Midnight Sun in Sriharikota – An Indian Rocket launch
சொர்கத்தின் பறவைகள் Indonesian Birds of Paradise My Book review (in Tamil) of Darwin's Armada 
Video of my lecture on Astronomy of Ancient Cultures

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