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October 2010

Aravind: Recollections of Mayo and Gibson

Padmanabhan Krishna Aravind (No.501)
Mayo College, 1964-67

I was a student at Mayo from 1964-67. My younger brother, Srinagesh, joined at the same time as me but graduated a year later. Mr.Gibson retired two years after I left. His timing was perfect because it allowed both Nagesh and me to enjoy him as principal during our entire stay at Mayo (without any idea, at the time, that we were also witnessing the end of an era). Mayo in those days was a wonderful place for a young boy to be growing up and getting an education. I would like to recall a few incidents from that period that still stand out in my mind after all these years.

A recurring incident involving Mr.Gibson that is etched in my memory, and doubtless that of many others, is the story of Eratosthenes and how he measured the radius of the Earth. When Mr.Gibson dropped in unannounced in our class, as he sometimes did, and temporarily took over the reins from the teacher, the conversation was likely to drift to Eratosthenes. Gibson would begin telling the story, but then insist that we all participate in the telling. Suddenly, without warning, he could turn towards you and ask you to pick up the tale where it had been left off. And woe to the unfortunate boy who couldn’t! By the time we graduated, we all knew the story backwards. Recently I was stimulated by this old remembrance to write a paper in Mr.Gibson’s honor on the occasion of his birth centennial. As a variation on his favorite theme, I showed how it is possible to determine the earth’s radius by using a tall building. The idea is to go up the building and observe sunset repeatedly from higher and higher floors, and then use the times of the sunsets and the heights of the floors to determine the earth’s radius. Although the idea didn’t originate with me, I thought it might be worth publicizing to a new generation of schoolboys as a fitting tribute to Mr.Gibson’s memory.

Another incident I can recall involved our Vice Principal, Mr.Dan Mal, who was also our geography teacher.  One day Mr.Dan Mal told us about the tides and how they are caused by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon on the earth. Then he went on to say that the tides caused by the moon are larger than those of the sun. “But, Sir”, one of the boys objected, “the sun is so much bigger than the moon, so shouldn’t its tides also be bigger?” Mr.Dan Mal, not at all upset by this challenge to his authority, replied, “You are right that the sun is bigger. But it is also much further from us, and so its force on the earth, and its tides, are weaker.” However the class didn’t seem entirely convinced by this explanation, and Mr.Dan Mal seemed to sense this. Just then our mathematics teacher, Mr.N.C.Sharma, happened to be walking past the class and Mr.Dan Mal decided to enlist his help in settling the matter.

Mr.Sharma was invited in and the problem was explained to him. He was given the masses of the sun, moon and earth and all the distances involved and asked to determine if it was the sun that exerted a larger force on the earth or the moon. It didn’t take Mr.Sharma long. He did a quick calculation on the board, mainly counting powers of ten, and came back with his verdict:  the sun’s force was larger, and it wasn’t just a bit larger, it was a lot larger. There was no doubting the correctness of Mr.Sharma’s calculation, whose details he spelt out for our benefit. Yet Mr.Dan Mal stood his ground. He didn’t contest Mr.Sharma’s mathematics, but maintained, with that air of sagacity he always managed to radiate, that the moon’s tides were definitely larger. So there was a standoff between Mr.Dan Mal and Mr.Sharma. They stood facing each other, neither man willing to yield. What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Before we could find out, the bell rang and class was dismissed.

I discovered the answer to the puzzle only several years later when I studied physics in college. I learnt that the tides are caused not by the sun’s (or moon’s) force on the earth, but by the variation of this force across the earth. Although the sun’s force on the earth is much larger than the moon’s, it is the moon’s force that varies much more dramatically across the earth, causing its tides to be larger. So Mr.Sharma and Mr.Dan Mal had each been right, but only up to a point: Mr.Sharma had been right in insisting that the sun’s force was larger, and Mr.Dan Mal in maintaining that this fact was irrelevant. (In retrospect, Mr.Dan Mal’s lesson was the deeper one: don’t get blown away by mathematics if it contradicts well established facts). Though this discovery was no great leap of knowledge, it did play a certain role in my intellectual evolution.  I mention this incident to bring out what I think may have been Mr.Gibson’s most important achievement at Mayo: creating an atmosphere of openness that was conducive both to the pursuit of knowledge and one’s personal development. No boy was ever chided for questioning the wisdom of his teachers or advancing contrary or unpopular views, provided he was willing to defend his position. This had a truly liberating effect on us and made us learn and grow in ways that might otherwise not have been possible.    

We didn’t just learn from our teachers, we also learned from each other. I remember a boy, Amit Mitra, a year my senior, who made a great impression on me. Amit was very smart, but also very crazy. He was always cooking up some fantastic scheme or the other or advocating some outrageous position.  For example, he had the idea that it is possible to train the human body to be subjected to large voltages without suffering any injury. His reasoning was that if the body was subjected to gradually increasing voltages, it could be trained to increase its resistance as a result, and the current could thereby be limited to a safe value. In pursuit of this idea, he planned to hook himself up to four batteries one day, six the next, eight the third, and so on. Then, one day, he would be able to plug his fingers into the wall outlet and remain unhurt. Fortunately for all of us, Amit soon tired of this project and his interests drifted to other matters.

Amit returned from vacation one year in a state of high excitement. He told us that he had mastered Einstein’s theory of relativity. He lectured excitedly, to all who would listen, about length contraction, time dilation and the equivalence of mass and energy. I found myself fascinated by what he said. Because I was one of the rapidly dwindling band of devotees who longed for more, he favored me with several private lessons of my own. I can remember his sitting next to me in the dormitory as I worked my way through his derivation of the length contraction formula, providing me with help and encouragement when I stumbled and heaping warm praise on me when I reached the goal. However it was clear to me that I hadn’t really understood the theory and had only succeeded in reproducing the steps of Amit’s derivation. But the experience fired me up like nothing else. I promised myself, with all the passion of youth, that I would return to the theory of relativity one day and master it, and not rest until I had done it, and that I would rather do this than acquire all the riches in the world.

It wasn’t all work and no play, of course. There were sports and all sorts of other activities that we participated in. We all had to do everything, not just the things we liked or were good at. I was only a modest athlete, but good enough at tennis and squash to become school captain in the first and get colors in the second. One of my great regrets at the time was that I never got to play Gibson at squash. He would show up at the old stone courts from time to time and challenge one of the boys to a game. He would invariably be stripped down to nothing but his shorts when he played, and his huge, naked body would be glistening with sweat, making him appear like some fearsome warrior of old whose conquest was a most desirable feat. Though in his mid fifties, he was a wily competitor and certainly no cake walk for his much younger and fitter opponents.

Mayo did a lot for us boys. In addition to developing our bodies and our minds, it opened our eyes to the world beyond and taught us how we might fit into it. That was particularly important for me, because I found my world expanding rapidly after I left Mayo. After college at St.Stephen’s and Delhi University, I came to the US for higher studies and ended up living and working here.

In the 1990s (I forget exactly when), more than two decades after I had left Mayo, I heard that Mr.Gibson was not doing well. Although I had not kept in touch with him, and he had surely forgotten me, I decided I would write to him. I began by reminding him who I was, told him what I had done after leaving Mayo and then described some of my activities that I thought he might find of interest. Then I recalled some fond memories of Mayo and said how grateful I was to him and all my teachers for all that they had taught me. I mentioned many of my teachers by name and the subjects they had taught me, and wondered how many of them were still there and how they were all doing. I quoted a stanza from the poem Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning that accurately captured my feelings:

            Yet gifts should prove their use:
            I own the Past profuse
    Of power each side, perfection every turn:
            Eyes, ears took in their dole,
            Brain treasured up the whole;
    Should not the heart beat once ‘How good to live and learn?’

I didn’t really expect to hear back from Gibson. In normal health he would surely have replied, but his present condition probably required him to conserve his energies for more pressing demands. So I was agreeably surprised and very touched when, a month or so later, I received a letter from him. The letter had not actually been written by Gibson, but by someone who took down his words and typed them up. Gibson thanked me for asking after him and for my words of appreciation for him and my teachers. He then gave me news of himself and some of the teachers I had mentioned, and also of recent happenings at Mayo. His letter filled me with the greatest delight. When I reread it for perhaps the third time, I fancied I could almost hear his voice speaking out the words to me. I then put the letter away safely, so safely that I have not been able to find it since that day.

With that I will bring this account to a close. I thought I ought to share these reflections with this audience, for whatever interest they might have, rather than simply letting them fade away along with me. On a broader note, I am constantly amazed to discover all the things that Mr.Gibson’s students – really, his extended family – have done, and are continuing to do.  Gibson’s students have ventured into areas, and done things, that he never dreamed of – just as he himself once did. Mr.Gibson may be gone, but his spirit and legacy live on.