Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Useless Dust - Part I

Avinash Singh made sure that the sacks were properly tied down. It was an open Tata truck, and he wanted the sacks full of fertilizers and seeds to get to his family's farm safely. He had made the driver put tarpaulin over the sacks and made sure that it too, was tied down with more rope. After a final round of inspection, he waved the driver on, and started walking towards his own car, which was parked a few yards away.

And that's when he heard the barking.

A bunch of stray dogs were furiously barking at a homeless man, who looked like he was mentally deranged. The man was throwing all that he could find on the street, at the dogs. Small rocks, pieces of old bricks, used earthen tea-cups, and even garbage. But the dogs were quite persistent -- as if, they had had enough. They wanted the man out of their street. And this seemed like a standoff, that was long overdue. 

Suddenly, Avinash heard the sound of shattering glass. He turned and saw that one of the rocks hurled by the homeless man, had hit a beautiful glass elephant, being displayed outside an antique store on the other side of the street. As he heard some shouts and the sound of running feet, he turned towards his car again. And, he almost bumped into a man standing behind him.

The man was a Sadhu, about six feet two, and draped in saffron, with a pitch black beard. He had deep eye sockets, and a pair of eyes, that looked like they were on fire. With a thundering voice, he said, "Avinash, you can throw rocks at an elephant, but before you do, you should find out what it is made of."

And then, he turned, and walked away.

After about ten minutes, as Avinash was trying to steer through heavy traffic with a tap dance of gas and clutch, he remembered the question that he should have asked the Sadhu, had he not been too startled to speak. "Wait, how do you know my name?!"

That night, as Dr. Avinash Singh was checking his final calculations before he confirmed the news to the committee, he remembered the strange incident with the Sadhu that morning.  And suddenly, almost on impulse, he got up from his desk, where he was running a complex simulation to verify a trajectory, and walked over to a room on the other side of the corridor that he hadn't stepped into, for months. The room had a telescope, connected to a computer. With it, he could track almost any star, planet, or asteroid. But instead, he started working on hooking up a spectroscope to the equipment. After about three hours of backbreaking work, he could run a spectroscopic analysis on the light from the object in the heavens he was looking at. Very soon, he would be able to tell what it was made of.

When he looked at the data, he couldn't believe his eyes, and so, he checked again. And then, as he remembered the Sadhu's words from the morning, a shiver went up his spine. The elephant, would indeed shatter when the rock was thrown, but now, he knew what the elephant was made of. He wondered, if others did too.


Their meetings were short, but deliberate. They shared data and discussed its impact on their final plan. Unlike countless other scientists, they never acted as if their work was so important that the fate of the world depended upon it. But, it would be a significant misstatement in their case, if someone said that it didn't.

They were handpicked by their respective governments for excellence in what they did. And one more trait, that made them quite unique. All of them led lives of low profile and had no desire to be in the limelight.  That, was quite important for the project.

Avinash signed into the video conference. They started rather unceremoniously, and Avinash started presenting his data. After about ten minutes of  uninterrupted presentation, the questions started. And then, they were convinced that the trajectories were perfect. They had to be, since there wasn't anyone else in the world who could predict the motion of objects down to the last few feet, like Avinash could.

In their mutually accepted code, one of them asked, "So, Dr. Singh. Do you think the rock will hit the elephant?"

"I think we all agree that it will. However, if it doesn't, we will have two more rocks on standby. The only problem is that the closer the elephant gets to the water-tank, and the more we delay throwing the rocks at it,  the greater the chances are that the elephant will crumble into fine dust. And the dust might cloud out the water-tank completely for a week, but I don't think that it will be life threatening." 

"Anything else you want to add Dr. Singh?"

Avinash almost said, "Don't you think that before we throw rocks at an elephant, we should  find out what it is made of?" 

But instead, he said, "No. I am done, Mr. Chairman."  Unnecessary  talk was not encouraged, since everyone was involved in a very important mission. And, they were running against time.


As Avinash started driving back towards his home after a long day at work, he crossed a busy street close to the biggest shopping mall in his town. A nationwide jewelry shop was advertising a rather comical message on a large LCD screen.

"Before the world ends in 2012, buy all the gold you can! Last chance before doomsday!!!"

Avinash smiled. He wondered what the hordes of people coming out of the mall would do if they knew that the "elephant" was a large asteroid hurtling its way towards the earth. And "water-tank", was a rather sentimental codename they had chosen for planet earth, which was in imminent danger from the "elephant".

 But then, they had a few rocks of their own.  To throw at the elephant.

(To be continued) 

(Part II)


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