Singin’ In The Rain



Image courtesy AFP via The Coffee House


Monsoon. A word that evokes wonderful memories in me: the welcome smell of parched earth receiving badly-needed nourishment; the happy sound of mud-heavy footballs kicked by mud-heavy children wearing mud-heavy clothes and boots; the joy of splashing through waist-high flooded streets on the way to school in the morning. Monsoons were always happy times for me.

The 1974 monsoon was a bit special, the months preceding the rains were drier than normal, and the monsoon was wetter than normal.

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Data taken from Weatherspark’s historical weather records for Calcutta, West Bengal, 1974

I remember the rain for another reason. Physics class. A particular question. And the sheer joy of working on the answer. The question was taken from the Resnick and Halliday Physics books; I think Part 1 was correctly referred to as Resnick and Halliday while Part 2 was Halliday and Resnick. The strange things one remembers after nearly forty years. Anyway, the question was simple. And here I’m paraphrasing:

Drops are falling steadily in a perpendicular rain. In order to encounter the least number of raindrops while travelling from point A to point B, would you travel at (a) your fastest speed (b) your slowest speed (c) some intermediate speed? Explain your answer.

How we loved that question. Boys battled with beakers, twirled their test-tubes, studiously engaged in getting wet while “learning”. Others sprinted from point to point, yet others walked slowly and purposefully, as if they were wearing cement boots. Some preferred discourse to action, so addas formed. Deep discussions on the difference between “encountering raindrops” and getting wet. Lots of arm-waving, lots of pontificating. It was a microcosm of Calcutta traffic, because children from other classes and years went serenely about their business while all this was going on, and miraculously no one bumped into anyone else. Not a drop spilt from beaker or test-tube.

We observed, we imitated, we tried out, we refined, we discussed, we argued. We learnt.

And we laughed.

Incidentally, the question of how to approach travel when it’s raining continues to excite scientists. Take a look at these papers: Whether or not to run in the rain (2012) or Walking or running in the rain: A simple derivation of a general solution (2011) or Is it really worth running in the rain (1987)

Learning from observation and trials. Learning by copying and imitating. Learning in groups. Learning with laughter. The DNA of memories I have of school and of university. Phrases like “How did you do that? Could you show me? Where did you find that out? Can I watch you? It doesn’t happen when I try, what am I doing wrong?” …. these were the phrases of childhood and school, with teachers there to facilitate learning rather than just to teach.

I still learn mainly by watching others and trying things out.

Take cooking. So much of food preparation is about tips and tricks, observation, trial and imitation. Here’s a small list of what I’ve learnt by watching others. Want your whole grilled fish not to warp or tear when you’re finishing it off under the grill for that crisp golden look? Then take a knob of butter, rub it against the grain of the scales so that tiny slivers of butter get under the scales. Then, when you apply intense heat, the skin won’t contract faster than the flesh, and everything looks the way you want it to. Want to peel garlic without the stickiness and the mess? Take the cloves, put them under the blade of a large knife, then slam the blade with the flat of your hand. Hey presto the cloves are peeled. Don’t like the sound of that? Then just put the separated cloves in a cocktail shaker and shake very vigorously for a minute. Same difference. Want to make ultra-thin pancakes for Peking Duck? Roll the flour into a long thin cylinder, maybe half an inch thick. Chop cylinder into 3/4 inch bits. Then take one bit at a time, slice in half, moisten with oil, put the two halves back together. Then take the re-integrated bit and roll it out into a pancake using a standard rolling pin. Steam the result, you’ll find you can peel the pancake into two ultra-thins.

The ability to observe. The ability to imitate. The ability to try it out for yourself. The ability to get quick feedback. Four critical requirements for learning.

We’re in the midst of a digital revolution. Everything that happens can be observed by more people than has ever been possible before. The internet is a copy machine, the ability to share and to imitate has never been cheaper. Tools continue to be invented to make it possible for all of us to be able to try more things for ourselves than we could ever do before.

This digital revolution is a learning revolution. As long as we don’t waste it. Waste happens when we constrain the ability to observe, to imitate, to try out, to get feedback. Particularly when we have the opportunity to make it all affordable, ubiquitous.

Education drives the solution to so many of our perceived problems. Education is so incredibly accelerated, assisted, augmented by digital infrastructure. If we let it.

We who are here on earth today can make a difference to that earth by ensuring that we don’t waste this incredible opportunity, of using digital infrastructure to enfranchise everyone, to provide the opportunity for all to learn.

Battles like SOPA and PIPA and ACTA are not about access to films and TV and music and books and magazines. The internet was not conceived to be a new delivery mechanism for Hollywood.

There will be more SOPAs. More PIPAs. More ACTAs. Because change is difficult, and some are more affected by change than others. We don’t have as many farriers or blacksmiths or fletchers as we used to have. We don’t have as many gramophone manufacturers or tape recorder makers or VHS rental shops as we used to have.

Digital infrastructure disrupts many forms of publishing industry. That very disruption, while apparently affecting those industries adversely, allows for education to scale in ways we couldn’t ever have imagined. Just look at what’s happening with MOOCs.

And the publishing/entertainment industries don’t have to be affected adversely. They just have to learn to create, market, deliver and price differently. Like everyone else is doing.

So when you see the next SOPA or ACTA rear its ugly head, think of the changes that good education can bring about. Changes to do with climate, the environment, water, energy, nutrition. Changes that enable more to be gainfully employed. Changes that teach people to fish rather than to receive fish.

That’s what the battle is about. And you know something? I’m singin’ in the rain. Because it’s over.

11 thoughts on “Singin’ In The Rain”

  1. I think the other standard physics text those days was Nelkon. first initial M. May have been called Fundamental Physics.

  2. I saved not just Resnick & Halliday but also mathematics stuff for my kids such as Knight & Hall (Aljebra); Coordinate Geometry (SL Loney). Classic but still the best according to me.

  3. JP, I remember the 1974 monsoon very well, wooden furniture floating in the ground floor flats, and water outside at least 3 feet deep, the dhobi’s shop flooded, and out of commission for at least a week. This was followed by a similar monsoon in 1977/78.

    I also remember Resnik and Halliday well. You gave them to me after you finished your SC, and introduced me to a gentleman called Paul A. Samuelson (economics)!

    Tarry, it’s all coming back. Knight & Hall and S L Loney were indeed classics.

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