INDIAN AT HEART: Prof Hankey has been teaching meditation for years and is probably more familiar with Sanskrit than many Indian scholars
In the first of a series of articles, ALEX HANKEY, a charming Englishman with a Ph.D from MIT, recounts his journey from a curious 12-year-old boy to a man who fell in love with all things Indian and wound up on the faculty of the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana, a deemed university in Bangalore
For a scientist interested in scientific mysteries, India is an ideal place to pursue esoteric subjects such as the higher realms of Yoga, and research their possible scientific basis. Personally, I find India a wonderfully friendly country, where I can form friendships easily. All Indians seem to have an intrinsic fascination for their traditional culture.
Also, my father was an English diplomat who was continuously posted abroad when I was young and I became used to living in foreign countries. We made friends with other diplomats who were also serving in countries foreign to them. I came to know people who spoke many different languages as their native tongue. Some were delightful Indian families, like Mr and Mrs Chopra, who headed India’s Embassy to Sweden, where my father was posted from 1954 to 1960. Recently, I have even been able to renew my friendship with Romi, their eldest son who, on the advice of my father, was sent to the same boarding school in England as myself. Only a few months ago, Romi and I dined together at the India International Center on Max Muller Marg, New Delhi.
In Stockholm, I became really interested in pursuing a career in physics, the experience and skill-set that informs my present occupation, as a research scientist at S-VYASA, the Swami Vivekananda Anusandhana Samsthana (Research Institution) in Bengaluru. It happened in the following way.
In those days there was an annual Commercial Fare, ‘St Erik’s Messen’, where leading companies from many nations would advertise their products. I still remember watching some of the first kitchen blenders at work. At that time, in the summer of 1959, the British were constructing one of the world’s earliest commercial nuclear power stations, at Bradwell, off the east coast of England some 40 miles or so north-east of London. The Nuclear Power Plant Company, NPPC, building the power station, had booked a large area at the exhibition, and had a scale model of what the completed power plant would look like.
Being a curious 12-year old, and scientifically minded, I asked the engineer in charge of NPPC’s stand many questions, which he patiently answered.
But I still had many more questions when it came time for us to leave. Imagine my delight therefore, when I came to fly back to England, to attend my boarding school for the autumn term: whom should I find in the queue at the airport but engineer Bracegirdle, the very man who had been so kind at the exhibition. He immediately suggested that we should sit together on the flight. After checking in together, so we did. I was able to ply him with questions throughout the flight: two hours to Copenhagen, where we waited half an hour; and then another two and half hours to London. At the end, he said to me, “You really should come and visit the power station yourself. Then you can see it all. Why don’t you ask your headmaster for permission to take a day off; I will come and pick you up. You can bring your best friend. I shall drive you both back to school again at the end of the day.”
To my astonishment, the headmaster, a great man who had also been Chairman of the English Headmasters’ Conference, was only too happy for us to go. I could hardly believe my good fortune. So early one Saturday morning in November, my friend and I found ourselves being driven down the new M1 Motorway (also a thrilling experience; it was the first one in the UK) and over to the Essex Coast. What an adventure it was!
POWER STATION ADVENTURE
The power station had just had its graphite ‘moderator’ blocks, which slow down the neutrons, installed into the steel ‘pressure vessel’. We put on special shoes and were lowered down to walk on top of the graphite core through one of the holes where hot carbon dioxide gases would carry heat produced by the reactor out of the reactor, and over to heat exchangers.
Once in the central core, we saw where the Uranium power rods would be inserted, and where the equally, if not more, important Cadmium control rods would go (cadmium absorbs neutrons and slow the reactor down). We then saw the heat exchangers, which were also being installed at that time.
Next, we went over to the Generator Hall, where huge turbines would generate electricity from steam created in the heat exchangers. We also ate a super lunch and tea.
And when we drove back to Ashfold school as dark was falling (it gets dark before 5 pm in November in the UK), we saw the motorway by night — and some of the lights of London too. Unforgettable! Even our headmaster was fascinated. He kept Engineer Bracegirdle back for a drink and a chat, before letting him drive back to Bradwell.
I decided to become a physicist that very day. I installed a wall chart of Bradwell on my bedroom wall; also of the plans for the AGR, advanced gas-cooled reactor, the HPWR, high pressure water reactor, and the FB, fast breeder reactor, Britain’s first four generations of nuclear reactors. I would gaze at them in loving fascination every day, that I was at home during the holidays. My father came and looked at them too. He even visited Dounray, the Fast Breeder reactor in northernmost Scotland, where plutonium was produced.
It is difficult to think of any more extraordinary way that a curious boy with a penchant for thinking about numbers could be more decisively made aware of atomic and nuclear physics and chemistry.
Besides, Bracegirdle had taught me most of a degree course in nuclear reactor physics and engineering! That seemed a natural development.
ALWAYS ASK WHY!
My father and mother had always done much to interest me in science. They gave to me books on the subject to read when I was barely seven or eight years old. The first was called, ‘The Wonder Book of Tell me Why’, and the second, ‘The Wonder Book of How It’s Done’. Together they formed a child’s introduction to ‘Science (the first) and Technology (the second)’.
The first, particularly, made a great impression on me. From it, I learned to ask ‘Why?’ about any and all subjects. The experience soon led me to make an interesting observation: most grown-ups can either answer, or attempt to answer, the question ‘Why’, on any subject of inquiry. But if I repeated the question, effectively asking for a deeper explanation of their answer, most could not give one. Usually, that requires knowledge of the physics behind the topic in question. If you then asked, ‘Why?’, for a third time, no one could answer — today, I can state that only physicists with good knowledge of the foundations of physics can normally answer third level, ‘Why?’, questions!
Interestingly, such innocent exposure of human ignorance was not taken very well by some of my interlocutors. I was regarded as a problem, more of a pesky nuisance!
Today, at S-VYASA, I continue to pursue those scientific questions of, ‘Why do things occur?’, and, ‘How do they happen?’. Those questions continue to fascinate me — deeply! Especially when phenomena that they concern seem completely impossible to most scientists, e.g. like healing processes in Yoga medicine.
Later in these articles, I shall explain the new approach that has come to me, a new understanding of biology that enables us to understand the deep secrets of how Ayurveda and Yoga medicine work. I shall also explain how I arrived at those insights.