An Astronaut, a Physicist, and a President

By Archana Anandakrishnan

Days are longer in summer and shorter in winter.” I was told in my science class. Really? I wondered. Growing up in the southernmost state of India, I had not noticed anything odd like that. (Being near the equator, the amount of sunlight South India receives is almost constant all year round.) It was only when I moved to the United States (far away from the equator), to pursue graduate school, that I experienced this effect first hand.

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Me (in grey) and my sister (in blue) in our school uniforms. Morning fight for space on our dad’s bike 😉

There were many things like this that I didn’t quite grasp when I was in school. I always wanted to experience what was taught and experiment with things. Sometimes, school was very hard! But, thanks to my wonderful teachers and my parents, I began to enjoy the process of learning. I would like to tell you how three people – an astronaut, a physicist, and a president, whom I never met or spoke to, taught me valuable lessons in life.

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Dr. Kalpana Chawla before her first trip to space.

THE ASTRONAUT:
When I was young, my parents insisted that I read the newspaper every morning. Thanks to this habit, one day in 1997, I read the story of an Indian born woman who was going to space on board the shuttle Columbia. She was Kalpana Chawla. Kalpana means imagination in many Indian languages, and true to her name she kindled the imaginations of many Indian girls and girls from all around the world. I was thrilled! The idea of a girl born in my country making a trip outside of the earth was mind-boggling. By embarking on a journey of her own, she redefined the boundaries of what could be achieved for many young girls like me. The stars were suddenly within my reach! The next few years, I would follow Kalpana like her shadow. I read about her life and her education. I decided that I would go to the US and earn a PhD just as she had done. I wrote poems and gave speeches about her at school events. Kalpana would go to space one more time in 2003. On her return back to earth, the Shuttle Columbia disintegrated killing all 7 astronauts on board. I was shattered and I couldn’t accept what had happened to her and the other astronauts. Like Dr. Nancy Santagata had written in her post about Sally Ride, people like them were not supposed to die. Kalpana Chawla was my first role-model, and by doing what she loved to do, she inspired a nation of young women.

THE PHYSICIST:
During our summer vacations, we traveled by train to visit my grandparents. I would buy a book for myself to read on the train. On one such train journey, I was introduced to “A Brief History of Time” by Stephen Hawking, a renowned physicist. The book explains the current understanding of the origins and working of the universe to the non-scientist.  Hawking explains in the book that there is a possibility that a grand unified theory could explain all the fundamental interactions in nature (except gravity). He said physicists were pursuing a theory of everything that would have been present at the beginning of the universe, or could manifest in the high energy collisions inside the Large Hadron Collider under the French-Swiss border. About 15 years after I read this book, I find that I am also a part of this pursuit, now as a physicist myself. It reassures me that I am where I belong. Stephen Hawking is an author who, through his writings, inspired me to think about how the universe works.

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Dr. Stephen Hawking, physicist and author.

In 2001, Hawking visited India, and celebrated his 60th birthday in my home country. I had read his books and was excited to see the man on the face of every newspaper and news channel. Since the age of 21, Hawking has been suffering from the motor neuron disease, which has left him severely paralyzed and has also affected his communication. Yet, his enthusiasm for physics is evident in his works. Reading his story, I learnt that physical handicap did not matter if you were determined and that I could learn so much about the stars without leaving the earth.

THE PRESIDENT:
In 2002, India got a new president, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. In India, the largest democracy in the world, the President is elected by the members of the Parliament which is the equivalent of the Senate and the Congress in the United States. The new president was different, very different! He was a scientist. I had set my eyes on becoming a scientist, and to see one become the President of my country was a proud moment for me! Kalam was instrumental in advancing India’s space program and defense technology and was known as the “Missile Man” of India. At the same time, he was a beloved teacher, a visionary, and a source of inspiration for the youth and children of India. Even during his days as the President, Kalam would make it a point to address students in schools and colleges. He was a President who kept the future in mind, and being a scientist to me, he was an ideal leader. He wrote many books addressed to the youth of India. Reading his book “Wings of Fire” instilled in me patriotism and passion to succeed as a scientist and a citizen.

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Teacher, Visionary and a former President of India, Dr. Abdul Kalam

Success stories have always inspired me. There are many scientists whose stories motivate me, but these three characters have been the most influential in my life – An astronaut who taught me that I am no less or no different as a girl, a physicist who taught me that passion is the only thing I needed for a successful career, and a President who taught me that it is important to be an informed and good citizen (more so as a scientist). Today, I see that behind every success story, there is an individual who is passionate about what they do. I see it in my Professors, I see it in other scientists and I see it in the leaders I admire. Look around for your role model. Role-models never cease to exist!

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About Archana Anandakrishnan

photo I am Indian student pursuing my PhD in Physics at the Ohio State University. I came to the US in 2007. After obtaining a M.S. in Physics from the University of Oklahoma, I moved to Ohio State. I am a theoretical physicist and I work on theories beyond the Standard Model of particle physics, including supersymmetric and grand unified theories. I enjoy watching movies, and travelling. I am married to a physicist, and our goal while we are in the US is to visit all the 50 states 🙂 ! (My score: 25/50)

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