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Of Higgs Boson and water-powered cars.

LAHORE: I have a teacher friend who had a particular technique for dealing with difficult questions in class. When confronted with such a query, he would smile the most amiable of his smiles and respond with "Good question, next question..." and move on to something else. And seriously, there are some questions that should not be asked, preferably not by the people asking them and definitely not at the time that they are asking them.

Every time there is a story in the media about something big to do with science, it captures people's imagination and they want to understand it. So far, so good. The problem is that usually the answers to such questions are too complicated or so long that the questioner loses interest by the time you are not even halfway through. e.g. a Real Estate agent - who is also an old friend - with whom I was discussing the renting of a house, wanted to know what makes a Higgs Boson tick. He had heard it was the 'God particle' and wanted to know then and there what made it so close to the Almighty.

The Higgs Boson particle attracted keen interest in Pakistan, too

A neighbourhood vegetable seller, who was at that time weighing half a kilo of potatoes for me, wanted to understand in the time it takes the scales of his balance to just about level: "Why can a car simply be run on water?" He had heard someone proclaim on TV that he had invented such a car and was sort of upset when I said it couldn't possibly be right.

The problem with having been a teacher for a long enough time is that you develop a reflex mechanism whereby any questions that are thrown at you simply have to be answered. It is probably some kind of silly, professional ego problem. Not to respond seems like a dereliction of duty or an admission of failure. So I launch into an answer very sincerely and seriously and watch the progressive change in the countenance of this seeker of knowledge and enlightenment.

We start with an initial state where his shiny eyes seem to say "I am thirsting for this knowledge and you are the fountainhead that will quench my thirst" and you feel like Plato expounding in the Academy. However, within the next couple of minutes there is a noticeable change. There is a gradual dulling of the expression followed by furtive movements of the eyes towards the side wall where there just happens to be a large wall clock ticking away. By the time I think I've got the basic principle explained, there seems to be something wrong with the questioner's fingers as they seem to be tapping on the table without reason. The eyes have by now acquired a glazed faraway look.

Suddenly the questioner seems to awaken with a start. "There are a couple of things you need to remember", says my Real Estate dealer who has so far been engrossed in the mysteries of the Higgs Boson. He has navigated me and my family through several rented houses in the past and knows us all well, unfortunately.

Testing the impossible: a purported test-drive of the famous 'water-powered car' in Pakistan

"Your son must not play the drums at 3 o'clock at night, especially at Sehri time. While most of the neighbours really love his drumming, some of them unfortunately are not into it at 3 am in Ramzan. Others insist that there is a professional Sehri awakener who works the street. They really admire your son's desire to remind them of the sehri time but he really doesn't have to perform this duty".

Before I can fully digest this demand, he warms to his subject. "And how is Bhabhi? Aggressive as ever? These Panipat women. Great, great."

He nods and I notice certain sympathy in his tone. "Give her my salaam. Ahhm... maybe it would be a good idea if she didn't tell the children chasing each other across the street to lie down properly if they are so keen to be run over by her car. The children don't mind but some of the parents don't seem to agree. It takes all sorts". He shrugs his shoulders. So much for the lesson in particle physics.

As I take my leave, he rubs further salt into my wounds "That was really a wonderful discussion we had on the Higgs Boson. My teachers in school always said I should study science. Even today I continue learning from friends like you."

The experience with the vegetable vendor is no different, though he has less time to waste and the end comes more abruptly. While I am just beginning to explain to him what we mean by a fuel and why water is not a fuel, and he is nodding his head in profound agreement, suddenly he beckons me towards himself and says in a low voice, "Wonderful bananas. Indian. Smuggled. I've saved some for you at a good price". He then proceeds to bring forth a bunch of darkened bananas that surely must have seen better days. Seeing me hesitate, he adds the coup de grace in a conspiratorial tone: "Very good for the manhood". This is his final thrust, the masterly sales pitch he makes when he wants to sell the unsalable. I am by now desperate to get something out of our discussion; at least convince him why a perpetual motion machine is not possible. "Oh leave it sir ji", he says. "You say 'not possible', but there is a person on TV who has already built this water car. The CIA will surely kill him or kidnap him, mark my words". When I protest about the absurdity of the water-as-fuel claim he says "Chaddo ji, forget the bananas. I'll just put 10 rupees of green peppers and hara dhunya [coriander] with the potatoes. For you, free. OK?".
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Publication:Friday Times of Pakistan (Lahore, Pakistan)
Date:Feb 9, 2018
Words:991
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