February, 2016

From Montreal to Pondicherry, drawing parallels along the way

By Swasti Acharya

Sebastian Normandin, Assistant Professor of Science at Ashoka University not only has a fascinating approach to teaching Principles of Science, but also has interesting anecdotes to share about his stay in India. Apart from discussing topics such as falsifiability in science (and pseudoscience), the validity of descriptions mentioned in daily horoscopes to answering the begging question of ‘What is science?”, he also has in store for students a more personal conversation. In this candid interview with an undergraduate student, he tells us what made him land in the outskirts of New Delhi from the maple-dewed city of Montreal, and how his childhood dream of being an astronaut still keeps him going. Edited excerpts:

 

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  1. How did you decide to study the philosophy of science other than the conventional, hands-on side of it?
    I was good at math and all the reasoning skills required to be a successful scientist when young, but never had the patience. Science is a cruel mistress in that sense: it takes long hours of largely boring lab work to make discoveries and I wasn’t drawn to spending my life playing with centrifuges and test tubes. I was a huge science fiction fan when younger, ravenously reading the Golden Age greats like Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, and the cyberpunks like Gibson and Sterling who were the new wave when I was a teenager. I became interested in the concepts and theories, in understanding the nature of a scientific society and scientific thinking, and a truly critical assessment of what that has brought our world. As an undergrad I became enthralled by the history and philosophy of science, read people like Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend, and then I really never looked back at the idea of being a practicing scientist.

 

  1. What is the significance of the course you are teaching at Ashoka? What is that one takeaway you would like to leave the students with?
    I think the significance of the Foundations of Science course is not really about the content, per se; it is an ethos. The foundation of scientific thinking isn’t a clear-cut “scientific method” and the supposed neutral, objective “facts” it generates. It is skepticism. Doubt. Doubt about our senses and their limits when applied to trying to understand the natural world. It is about the way that new ways of seeing actually alter the nature of reality, since what we perceive is all we can truly know of reality. And even then we are often wrong and ideas and views change. My one takeaway is that certainty and hard facts aren’t the essence of science, doubt and change are.

 

  1. What’s a pro-tip you followed in college that you’d like to share with us?
    Show up for class, be brilliant and insightful, show interest in the topic and professors will be very lenient about late assignments.

 

  1. Growing up, what did you aspire to be? Did you ever picture yourself teaching in a university tucked away in a city somewhere in India?
    When I was young I wanted to be an astronaut. I still sort of do. I want to go into space. For real. That perspective fascinates me. You get a taste of it flying at 35,000 ft. for sure, but to really be all the way out there, orbiting the earth, seeing what they call the “overview effect” would be truly majestic. I was also really into astronomy, had my own little telescope and wanted to be an astronomer. But there the romance is really gone. Astronomers don’t look through telescopes anymore. (Well, amateurs do). The pros analyse data from all sorts of telescopes that often aren’t even visual images — radio signals, x-rays, etc…And no, I never even imagined the idea of teaching in a university in India. Even at this time last year it wasn’t on my radar.

 

  1. What brought you to Ashoka?

Fate. I had a friend who knew some of the founders and it just turned out I was a good fit for the job. They were looking for someone to do precisely what I do: introduce students to the conceptual and theoretical elements of science without being excessively pedantic or technical about it. I have quite a bit of experience teaching the history and philosophy of science, have a passion for contemporary scientific developments and ideas, and also have a lot of eclectic and random knowledge about a lot of other things — general history, psychology, the esoteric and the weird, etc… And it isn’t exactly everybody who does that.

 

  1. How has your stay in India been so far? What do you like about the country?

India has been both challenging and wonderful. At first I couldn’t even believe it existed. I doubted all my perceptions initially because they were so different from the context of life in North America or Europe. I even wrote about it just to process the whole experience. As time has gone on I have developed a deeper sense of the place and come to really enjoy it. I was in south India, Pondicherry, over the winter break and definitely loved it. I grew up in Montreal in Canada, a city with a distinctly French flavor. And the parallel there with Pondicherry, like a kind of tropical equivalent, really spoke to me.

 

  1. How are the students at Ashoka different from those you have taught overseas?

I find my students here at Ashoka to be very engaged and enthusiastic. They are less blasé than your typical North American teenager. They are more multi-talented and multi-faceted too, as well as very ambitious and positive. There is a spirit and energy they have that is very endearing and inspiring.

 

  1. What’s the one most unexpected but pleasant event or instance that took place after arriving in India that you’d like to share with us?

I have a few. One of the first was waking up to parakeets at my window. For some reason I found that really lovely. These gorgeous green birds with their curiosity and steady gaze would come to the window of my room in the faculty building and make their lovely squawking noises. It made the fact that I arrived at the back end of the monsoon and was soaking in sweat all the time from the steamy heat that much more bearable.

(The writer is a first year undergraduate student at Ashoka University)

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