Physics at St Stephen’s in 2035 – a Vision
Later this year it will be twenty-five years since I graduated from college. If I had spent this quarter-century in the wilderness and then returned to St Stephen’s, I would certainly have noticed a few changes – more cars, more women, more Hindi –, but the ovewhelming perception would have been – nothing’s changed! Now let’s look twenty-five years into the future.
You are in your mid-forties, and have not revisited college since you left. In fact you’ve been in the wilderness yourself, cut-off from the world of education, working, let us say, with the tribal people in Bastar. But you’re back in Delhi after two decades, and yesterday when you called up one of your classmates she told you her daughter was hoping to get into St Stephen’s. You’re drawn back to the old days – you have to go back to College. You park your rented car in the underground parking lot where the shooting range used to be, and walk in through the Allnutt gate. Rohtas’s dhaba, you notice immediately, is gone, replaced by a large vending machine. But the cafe is still where it was. You step in; how clean it looks! And no, of course not, that can’t be Bhayyan over there. You decide not to stop for a snack; you never liked the mince cutlet anyway, and you’ve finally outgrown Maggi. Outside, eternal, is the tree and its ring of beautiful people, sitting delicately, legs crossed, like ballet dancers. On the Allnutt Court you see groups of students in the sun. The flowers look beautiful.You walk on, down the lane by Allnutt South. Is it still a girls’ block? you wonder, and then you notice both boys and girls going in and out freely.
You walk into the main cor. The ramp has been re-built, thank god. It has a guard-rail now, and a considerate slope. You look eagerly into Room C. Every student has a small computer, you notice. This doesn’t surprise you – you’re not that disconnected. You rush past rooms C, B, and A, turn quickly into the main foyer and look in through the open door of the hall. The seating is rather plush. You look up. Jesus said, I am the Light of the World … – it’s still there. You go back out into the main corridor, and have a look at Today’s Engagements: the Planning Forum invites you to meet Mr Rahul Gandhi, leader of the Opposition; the Choreo and Music Societies will hold a combined audition this afternoon for their annual musical (wow, you think, they’re really moved on since my time). You walk past the Principal’s office, and turn right. You look into the library. It’s now one vast computer centre. Looks like something out of Star Trek, you think.You can’t wait anymore: you must see what’s happened to the science block. You rush past Rud North, give the old chapel hardly a nod, and then, as you reach Mukh West you begin to run. You’re startled to see a dome-like fibre-glass roof floating over the basketball court, but you don’t stop.
Oh my god – a second storey! And the corridors have been glassed in. You turn left, push open the door, and enter the cool, air-conditioned space outside the NPLT. You look in. The classroom has no ramp anymore, and that huge desk in front is gone. So is Dr Popli’s picture. There are about twenty students sitting in a ring. They’re looking intently into wafer-thin screens. Ah, you think, the teacher must have given them some exercise to do.
You look in through the open door, at the nearest computer screen. Electricty & Magnetism, it says at the top of the page. Old Maxwell’s Equations, you think. Hmm, let’s see: div E equals rho by epsilon naught, …. There’s a video running on the screen. A white man draws a horizontal line, quickly inscribes some positive signs under it, and a vertical arrow – a vector, an electric field –, and then draws a flat little box – a Gaussian pillbox! Yes, of course: the change in epsilon times the the normal component of the electric field is equal to the surface density of free charges. You smile foolishly, aglow with pleasure. You start looking around. Then you notice something funny: there are different videos on different computers. But as you watch you notice that they all seem to be saying the same thing: they’re all about boundary conditions, only some explain them with pictures, some with equations, some talk a lot, some just write enigmatically. No one looks bored. Wow, what a great idea, you think; I could never understand Dr Phookun’s long-winded explanations.
A bell rings. The students take off their headphones. They talk to each other for a while, and then most of them type furiously into what looks like a chat-box. You peer in. I don’t get it, the student is writing, how come only the free charge density appears on the RHS? Ah, questions, they’re posing questions! And you see the answers popping up in the lower panel. Now you can’t stop yourself; you walk into the classroom, and look into a couple of the screens in front of you. At one of them a sardarji is sitting quietly. Then, slowly, with one finger, he types out something. After a pause, you see this message on the lower panel: The data bank bank does not have any answer matching your question, but it will be passed on to Grandmaster Walter Lewin Jr at MIT. If he approves of your question, you will get your answer tommorrow, plus ten bonus points on your Universal Academic Rating.
The class ends. Some of the kids smile at you, and you begin talking to them. You think, let’s see, who would still be around? Dr Garg, Dr Cherian, Dr Phookun, Dr Sanjay, Dr Sangeeta – they must all be gone by now. Maybe Dr Gupta is still here; he looked so young then. You ask after your old teachers. The kids look puzzled. Then someone tells you – but there are no teachers here! No teachers? You mean this isn’t a college any more? Of course it is – it’s a self-learning college. You mean teachers don’t exist any more. They do, but only in, like, really remote areas, and special colleges for the handicapped. And of course there are the Grandmasters at MIT and Caltech; they’re the ones who make our lessons, and our answer banks. But who looks after the college? Well, there’s an administration, but we help too. But why come to college at all then? The discussions really help. And often old students and visitors come and tell us about what’s happening out there. Then there’s ECA. Besides, if we didn’t come to college, how would we meet?
You stagger out.