In the upstairs back corner of a garden apartment complex in Merced, CA, a 34-year-old man cooks delectable Indian food and engages in some of the most thought provoking conversation of my journey. Somesh Roy is a Post-doc in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Merced. He grew up all over India; the longest stint he spent anywhere was the seven years he spent getting his PhD. at Penn State. He hopes to return to India, someday.
Somesh’s father died two years ago. His mother lives in Calcutta. His sister also lives in India, but 1,000 miles from Calcutta. “Our sense of family is different from many in India since we travelled so much.” However, living all over his native land gave Somesh a unique perspective on that large, fractured nation. ”India is like the European Union. We have so many different languages and cultures.” India has fifteen official languages, rooted in two distinct linguistic trees. The Dravidian root in southern India is tied to Java and Indonesia. Islam influences the northern, Indo-European, tree. Hindi is called the ‘Normal Language’, although only a portion of Indians speak it. “All Indian states divide their functions into three categories: 1. Hindi for everything. 2. Hindi or English for everything. 3. Hindi or English or the local language.”
UC Merced is ten years old, the newest campus of the UC system. The only UC School in the Central Valley has a focus on first generation college students interested in engineering and environmental studies. “Merced is an interesting choice for a campus. The university population and the agricultural population are separate. This would be a good place for a longitudinal study for how a town changes with university growth.”
Somesh studies soot, an unclean by-product of combustion. Most of combustion takes place in a gas state, but soot, some of which comes from the yellow part of an exposed flame, other from beyond our visual range, is solid. Although combustion has been around for hundreds of years, there’s a lot we don’t know about soot. “Ideally we would understand the physics of soot and then apply it to combustion engines. But we can’t wait, so there is a lot of research to tinker with combustion engines and from that, maybe, inform our understanding of the physics. Combustion engines are everywhere and are not going away. A small improvement could have a large effect.”
Although Somesh studies a byproduct of the industrial revolution, he sees parallels with the current information revolution. “The industrial revolution freed up time for each individual. The struggle of daily life came under control and initiated a desire for more social interaction. Now, we are expanding those social connections to a virtual realm.” The idea that social interaction happens between a small group of people, face-to-face, is shattered. Somesh likens our expanded social capability to the concept of ‘quantum engagement’, in which two atoms have no direct attraction, yet an action on one instantly affects the other. The reach of our social networks expands well beyond our personal interactions.
Like everyone in the Central Valley, Somesh thinks about water. However, his perspective is quite different from most. “This isn’t a drought. A drought is when there is no water in the tap. For me, tap water year round is a luxury. People here have no reason to complain. Look at my apartment complex; it is watered every other day. What for? If we were raising goats, it would be different.”
The more we talked the more I appreciated Somesh’s comfort as both a man of science and of the spirit. In the United States, these two realms are often set in opposition, yet they coexist in comfortably in Somesh. “No human can be 100% analytical, but I try to me. Coincidence is just coincidence. But we must accept that we cannot know everything about our world. Science is our religion. But there is always a higher power.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“We think of ourselves as more important than other aspects of nature. We forget that we are part of the environmental system. We cannot manipulate the system from the inside. It’s mathematically impossible. We should not think we can shape the future. We don’t know what will be good in our future.
“I don’t think we’ll be extinct. We’ll adapt. We’re clever and we’ll adapt.”