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|May 15, 1999||
'He brings a humanness to (science) that's very refreshing'
Christine Clarke, Dr Ashtekar's wife, is a librarian specializing in rare books. The two met through friends 13 years ago in Santa Barbara, where Clarke was then on the faculty. They now have a 16-month-old son Neil. At home, Clarke jokes, Dr Ashtekar is "just a man," but he is "wonderful."
"He is smart, funny, responsible and he thinks intensely about things." Clarke, who visited India soon after their wedding, found India "overwhelming." She grew up with parents of two nationalities (American and German), and is confident that their son Neil, whose name translates to both cultures, will be happily influenced by Indian and American cultures.
Dr Ashtekar often goes back to India to visit family and for conferences, and was there last in December 1998. On that trip, he took a week to go back to Kolhapur and revisit old friends and old memories. The trip, he recalls, was "great. Very, very different. Very interesting." He found he no longer had much in common with some of his old friends but happily, several were still on the same wavelength. What the old friends discussed was not his research, Dr Ashtekar reveals, but "things to do with day-to-day life."
He adds he was thrilled that after being away for 18 years, they could still communicate about "why one is excited about what one is excited about."
When not at work, Dr Ashtekar likes to hike, swim in mountain lakes or volcanic lakes, snorkel and listen to classical music, particularly of the baroque period. In fact, he says laughing, the lone photograph in his office is not of family or friends but of Mozart. He is also interested in reading Indian philosophy and lately, the Tao and Zen traditions. He is fascinated by spirituality, consciousness, perception and the functioning of the brain.
"I want to understand not only intellectually, but also deeply, the connections between the spiritual traditions and the more modern work on psychology and the brain," he says.
Although he is an atheist, Dr Ashtekar says, his attitude toward work is from the Hindu religious text, the Bhagavad Gita. In the Gita, Lord Krishna instructs Arjuna, a mortal warrior, "Do what you must do because that is your dharma but give your fruits to Me," he says. His own philosophy also behoves him to feel joy in fulfilling potential and view goals as inspiration.
Amit Sen has known Dr Ashtekar since his days at the University of Chicago. The two friends went for long walks together, and discussed various philosophical and topical subjects. "Dr Ashtekar is a brilliant and dedicated scientist but also a very humble, warm person who enjoys life," says Sen, who was the best man at Ashtekar's wedding. Unlike the stereotypical physicist, "(Ashtekar) is not shy at all, he's quite outgoing. If he were in the business world, he'd be the CEO of a company."
Brewster, who has been Dr Ashtekar's assistant for five years, agrees. "He's the exception, I believe, in science," she says. "He brings a humanness to (science) that's very refreshing."
Neil, Brewster says, brings out his childlike qualities. "It's a really fun, lighthearted side that you wouldn't think exists in someone of his stature," she adds. Jayanth Banavar, Chair of the Department of Physics at Penn State, also comments on Ashtekar's devotion to his son. Banavar met Dr Ashtekar six years ago when the physicist joined the faculty. The two are now friends and Banavar is full of admiration. "(Ashtekar) is extremely nice, very affable, very brilliant, just a wonderful guy," Banavar says. Like Clarke, Brewster, and Sen, Banavar also stressed Dr Ashtekar's modesty. "Beyond all his talents, he is just an extraordinary human being," he says.
Sen describes Dr Ashtekar as extremely self-motivated and very energetic. Dr Ashtekar too admits that he is "never bored. There's always something to do. If anything, I wish I had more time and needed less sleep."
If he could do something entirely different, Dr Ashtekar says, "If I were dreaming, I would have liked to be a composer. I find it sublime." But in his present incarnation, he wants to accomplish "great satisfaction with one's work, great happiness playing with one's baby and a sense of peace and equilibrium."
The author, a science writer, is in the graduate program in journalism at New York University.
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