Philosophy · Science · Short stories

The mind-matter dilemma


“Hey, are you gonna be here longer? Then I won’t lock the door now.”

Jack asked Ary as he was about to leave the laboratory for the day. Ary didn’t know why he asked the same question to Ary every evening. Though he certainly wasn’t the first person to get into the lab everyday, he almost always was the last person to leave. He worked till late hours of the night while most others would hang out with their friends and families, attend parties or simply go to bed early to have an early start for the next day.

Ary’s eyes were on the computer screen, as the tip of the microscope scanned the surface of the last thin film he grew.

“Hey Ary, will you lock the door?”, Jack asked again not getting an answer from Ary.

Of course I would. I am a poor Indian grad student living in a foreign land. I have no life. I have no girlfriend- Ary told himself.

But then to his own surprise, he said, “No, I think I am done for the day. I shall leave with you. Lock the door”.

Ary packed his backpack, left the computer to direct by itself  the motion of the tip of the microscope over his dearest thin film sample, and got out of the lab, located in the basement of Hearst Memorial Hall, the oldest building on the University of California Berkeley campus. Outside it was dark already. It was the end of November. Days had already become very short in this part of the globe.

Ary hated this part of the year the most. It had been more than two years since he had moved to California from Calcutta for his PhD. He would go home every winter during the Christmas break and come back quite refreshed to resume research. So during this time of the year, with days too short and nights too long for a guy from lower latitudes like Ary and Christmas still a month away, he would feel exhausted and depressed after swimming with the sharks in a highly aggressive and competitive research environment of one of the top graduate schools in US for an entire year, and longed for the peace and warmth of his sweet home in Calcutta.

Ary paced across the campus briskly in the dark and reached the University Avenue, which started from the west end of the campus, pierced through the heart of the city of Berkeley which was rather somewhat between a college town and a full blown city and ended at the Berkeley Marina, which overlooked the bay that connected with the Pacific Ocean. Ary wondered where to go for dinner. He didn’t want to cook the same marinara pasta at home again. He called up Diggy, a fellow grad student from India and one of his closest friends in Berkeley, to check his availability for dinner. Diggy, as expected, didn’t pick up the phone. Ary followed the University Avenue to the downtown area, passed the dingy McDonalds restaurant frequented by homeless people and walked into Bobby G’s Pizzeria- a sports bar with some good pizza.

Ary sat at the bar and waited for his pizza. The “football” game on TV didn’t register in his head at all. He never really understood the rules nor he knew any of the teams or the players. He kept thinking about the results of his experiments or lack thereof, his withering interest in the topic of his research and the apparent lack of direction in his research work- an activity which occupied most of his time for the last two years.

Just when his pepperoni pizza arrived, another fellow grad student, Steve Lambson, hopped in and sat next to him. Ary had talked to Steve a few times in the graduate social hour, but he didn’t really know much about him other than that his name was Steve Lambson, he was a second year PhD student in Civil Engineering and he was from Minnesota.

“You eat meat?”, asked Steve, “I thought Indians don’t”.

Ohh, another conversation aimed at dispelling misconceptions about Indians’ food habits, which won’t serve its purpose! – Ary told himself.

Ary didn’t feel like talking. For a while he had observed a pattern about himself. His inclination to interact with people outside the Indian graduate student community used to be very high when he wasn’t occupied with research. But after he spent a few days immersed in research, he only wanted to talk to his fellow Indian grad students. The current conversation with Steve would possibly continue along the lines of Indian culture, which Ary was tired talking about after spending two years in Berkeley. The conversation could also take an alternate trajectory where Ary would talk about his own research and Steve would talk about his, with neither person understanding anything about the other person’s research. Neither trajectory appeared promising to Ary, but he was too polite in this foreign land to not continue the conversation.

Though the conversation took the well-trodden second trajectory, Ary was pleasantly surprised to identify that he was actually able to follow Steve’s research. In fact, he started liking it. To make it more intriguing, Steve also mentioned that there was an opening for a new PhD student in his project. Steve was deploying wireless sensors in the Sierra Nevada basin to detect the occurrence of landslides. Though the technical aspect of the project sounded interesting, what really captured Ary’s imagination was the location of the project- instead of spending all his time working on thin films in a basement of a Berkeley building he would do laboratory work out there in nature, amidst the majestic Sierras. Ary had driven to Yosemite Valley that summer with some fellow Indian grad students and was mesmerized by the Sierras. Though he had visited several hill stations in the Himalayas with his parents back in childhood, he felt that the beauty of the Sierras wasn’t comparable to any other mountain he had seen before. He wasn’t sure why he felt so. He meticulously photographed the looming granite structures, the serene lakes, the tall redwoods and the beautiful chapels with his newly bought DSLR and wanted to go there again soon to pursue his passion in photography further. Now he was probably provided with the perfect opportunity to combine his work and his passion.

For a long time he knew that he loved Physics. That’s why he was working all day in a laboratory trying to find a phase boundary in a ferroelectric thin film, which nobody had observed before. But of late he loved photography and nature and nature photography so much more. This was his chance to stop being an Indian nerd and become cool like an American. Ary walked home that night, confused but excited. However when he jumped into the twin sized bed of his small studio apartment in downtown Berkeley, for which he paid a rent half his monthly stipend, he was too tired from the day’s work and inebriated from the beer at Bobby G’s to think further and slept immediately…