How I became a ‘sustainability problem-solver’ – Part 1/3

[This article was originally published at The Interview Portal, where you can find more “offbeat, unusual, unconventional and interesting” career interviews! Oriented towards students from 8th grade to graduate, I’ve tried to ‘unpack’ my journey in way that might be useful to any young person considering a career in sustainability!]

Jump to Part 2 or Part 3

Hari, tell us about your background?

I was born into an interesting family tree with many creative and unique individuals – artists, musicians, teachers, ecologists, engineers, scientists, mathematicians, writers, diplomats, judges and doctors among them. My father grew up passionate about wildlife. He wanted to be a zookeeper when he was young, and worked throughout his career in the forest department. My mother passed on to me a love of numbers, and like my father, is trained in economics. Both my parents are gifted in the arts, music and language.

When I was about five, my family shifted to Wales in the UK as my father pursued his PhD studies. We lived in a university town called Bangor. This was in 1986; my formative years were spent in this environment. It was an incredibly creative time with children of dozens of different nationalities attending the local school. It used to be a special treat for me to accompany my father to his university’s computer lab, which was filled with all sorts of amazing machines. The prize possession was the Acorn Archimedes, one of the first “RISC”-based computers and the great-great-grand-daddy of the processors in modern cell phones. I remember playing Lander on this, playing with Paintbrush, etc.

We bought a home computer for ourselves as well. By the time I was about 7, I had started teaching myself to program these computers. I started with a series of brightly illustrated classic computer books from Usborne that my parents had bought for me. My first real program was copied from this book. You had to enter a password (“sausages”) – if you didn’t enter the right password, the computer rudely told you “wrong, stupid monster”. This was programmed on GW-BASIC on an 8086 computer running at 8 Megahertz, with less than a megabyte of memory – the great-great-grand-daddy of today’s desktop computers!

By 1989, we had returned to India. I had a terrible time adjusting to the Indian school system. I simply couldn’t understand the Indian way of memorizing answers and reproducing them in examinations, etc. To help me adjust, my parents put me in an expensive school with several children who, like me, had returned from living abroad. I still found it hard, though. I had a lot of trouble with authority throughout my growing years, and I ended up in regular trouble with teachers. 

Looking back, I would say I was very talented, but I had no mentor to help me channelize my gifts in a creative and non-disruptive way. 

On the bright side, though, I had found a true love and outlet in computers. I loved programming them to do all kinds of weird and wonderful things. I literally spent every free hour experimenting with machines, to the detriment of my schoolwork and homework. Every week, I’d visit the local bookstores scouring the bookshelves for new computer books. I experimented with all kinds of programs – music programs, 3D graphics, fractals, simulators, joke programs, paint programs, RPGs and other games, chat programs, low-level operating system stuff, even computer viruses…

This was in the days before the World Wide Web was widely accessible, before Wikipedia and YouTube — before knowledge had essentially been freed through the Internet. Very few people owned computers of their own. I was on my own when it came to learning most of this stuff. 

I drilled down to programming in “assembly language” by the time I was 11 or 12. This is just a level above the native digital bytecode that computers speak. The early computers were simple enough that you could do this. I also taught myself other programming languages like C and C++, Pascal, etc. I was especially obsessed with computer graphics. I remember going to British council library and picking up old books from the 1970s and 80s which had graphics programs written in Fortran which I would then translate to Basic or C.

When I was in my early teens, I developed a burning curiosity to understand science and mathematics (especially calculus). A stack of Scientific American magazines from the 1970s and 80s provided a great introduction to scientific and mathematical thinking. I especially loved the column “Mathematical Games” by Martin Gardner. I remember being enthralled reading about things like cellular automata, billiard ball computers, etc. 

I dreamed one day of being a top scientist who would do groundbreaking work in the international community of scientists. It’s important to have dreams that inspire you, especially when you are young.

When I was 14 my father gifted me a copy of the classic Lectures on Physics by Richard Feynman, one of the greatest scientists and teachers who ever lived. (I highly recommend this for anyone interested in getting a deeper understanding of physics. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand everything – let the words sink in and provoke you to think!)

I spent the next couple of years reading and re-reading everything I could by Feynman that I could lay my hands on. I still remember his beautiful exposition of how atomic physics gives rise to macroscopic phenomena like gas pressure, etc. And how the limitations of this same theory (the so-called “ultraviolet catastrophe” or ultraviolet divergence) were patched to pave the way for the great scientific revolution of the 20th century – based on the discovery that light travels in quanta or packets, called photons. And his unforgettable lecture on symmetry in nature. I could go on…!

I especially loved and internalized Feynman’s way of examining problems fluidly and intuitively from every possible angle. I learned how to set up and deploy “models” from first principles based on intuitive insight, engaging the mathematical machinery naturally as a follow-on. If you are working on a problem and get non-contradictory answers by two completely different methods, it’s a good indication that you are making progress. I still use this approach even though I don’t work in pure physics. Another thing I picked up was an understanding of how science works – “experiment is the sole judge of scientific ‘truth’”. 

By the time I left school, I had gained a reputation among my peers, family circle and teachers as being quite a gifted young person. However, I had absolutely no idea of the non-technical skills involved in building an amazing and high-level creative contribution. Looking back, I am not surprised that I felt great inner turmoil over the next few years, as I struggled to “find” myself, and my calling in the world.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I wanted to be a scientist, but honestly I had no idea of the process, and little guidance. So, almost by default, I followed all my friends into studying engineering after high school. I literally had no idea where I was going or what I was doing, I was following the crowd. The prevailing thinking in those days was that a successful career entailed being either a doctor or an engineer. 

I ended up with a good engineering entrance test rank, and placed in a telecommunication engineering course in a well-regarded college – but I again faced the situation of being unable to cope with the education system. I stumbled my way through five years of undergraduate hell, barely passing tests, barely interested in the course and considered a hopeless case by most of my teachers. I spent most of my time living a Bohemian life with the ‘creative’ people – the artists and musicians – and studied very little. I spent an inordinate amount of time practicing the guitar, especially in an ‘elevated’ state of mind, if you know what I mean.

It amazes me that I did finally graduate with a respectable degree, given that my undergraduate years were such a haze! 

Looking back – what I did well was to never, ever cheat – no matter how dire the situation(!). I also made it through without ever prioritizing the “wrong” thing (in my opinion) – that is – “how many marks” – over “how much did I learn?”. Curiously, my interest in science and technology remained intact despite the whole traumatic experience. Perhaps I didn’t “spoil my mind” with the short-term, short-sighted studying that is frequently employed in order to clear the engineering degree in India. 

What were some of the influences that led you on the career path you are today?

A couple of years, and jobs, after undergrad, I started to feel the old itch to go deep again. I got together with a close friend from college, and we took about 6 months to sweep across and study the entire engineering syllabus in preparation for the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) exam. Free from the constraints and inefficiencies of college education, we creatively explored and discussed many beautiful topics at the boundaries of engineering, physics and mathematics.

I think we did a good job, as we both received an admit to the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore. I chose to take up doctoral studies on “quantum computers”. Remember we talked about “quantum” theory, to which I was introduced by Richard Feynman? Well, quantum computers use the physics of very small objects to store and process quantum information.

A regular (non-quantum) computer, like the one you are using right now, stores “bits”  – 1s and 0s – in “buckets” called capacitors in its DRAM memory. The bucket must be filled with a large number of electrons to change state.

A quantum computer, on the other hand, encodes information in objects like the spin of a single electron. Due to the properties of these tiny objects, quantum computers can perform calculations at lightning speed that regular computers would literally take millions of years to perform. In fact, they can enter computational states that don’t even exist on regular computers (!), no matter how fast – exploiting an amazing effect called “quantum entanglement” that was famously described by Einstein as “spooky action at a distance”!

The downside to building these amazing machines is that the tiny “quantum” bits – or qubits – are incredibly fragile. They have a tendency, when exposed to any environment, to “crumple up” – or “decohere” – and lose their quantum information in a jiffy.

My job was to design systems to “protect” this quantum information from “crumpling up” or “decohering”.

I had a marvellous time for the first couple of years, attending all sorts of strange and wonderful courses in the engineering, math and physics departments. I will be eternally grateful to my teachers and the Institute for giving me the freedom to explore exactly what I wanted to, how I wanted to, in those years. It is thanks to my teachers and friends at the IISc that I today find almost any discipline of science or technology accessible, given enough time, discussion and effort to learn on my part.

At this point you must be thinking – this is great, he finally found what he wanted to do! However – you guessed it – the inevitable happened. Somehow – I got messed up in the Indian academic system. While I had entered with great hopes and dreams of working at high levels at the edges of maths, physics and computer science– I started to lose focus. I found myself questioning “why” I wanted to spend the rest of my life working on abstract technical challenges with little relation to the concrete and down-to-earth problems I could see around me… poverty, hunger and pollution. 

Further, the first groundbreaking application for quantum computers, called Shor’s algorithm, solved the factoring problem – given a number N, the algorithm finds its prime factors “exponentially faster” than regular computers. This doesn’t sound like a big deal — but it gives a quantum computer of sufficient size the power to defeat all current encryption protocols – the systems that protect banking, email and phone communications, critical infrastructure operation and even defense communications. 

In other words, while they have many peaceful and useful applications, quantum computers are being used to build the ‘atomic bombs’ of the Information Age.

For these reasons among others, I slid into a deep depression. Finally, I decided to drop out of my doctoral studies. Luckily, I had done enough work to write quite a good Master’s thesis. Working with my advisor, I had extended the approach used to protect cell phone and satellite signals to the quantum information domain, using a mathematically beautiful technique that we called the “Fourier transform approach”.

When I had finished with my Master’s degree, I was totally burned out and in a very unhealthy place. It was also difficult to find a job, given the abstract and little-understood mathematical nature of my research. With few options in the industry, I decided to try teaching…

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I’ve shared with you the story of my life upto the age of about 28 – when it seemed that, for all my early talent and promise, I was burned out and staring at a dead end.  Now I want to share with you the decade-odd years since then – did I really manage to find my true calling, a meaningful role in the world, and a flourishing practice as a ‘sustainability problem solver’? How?

Read on… 😊

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