Refath Bari

Managing Editor, The Paper

Published on November 16, 2021

It’s funny how life comes full circle. Exactly 3,931 days ago, CCNY’s Spring 2011 semester began. I was 7 years old and just getting used to the US, where I’d landed a few months earlier. I can’t pinpoint where exactly my fascination with the universe began, but I it starts with one distinct memory — I was sitting on my mom’s lap as she was showing my nanu (grandma) the moon landing: “The Eagle has landed. That’s one small step for man and one giant leap for mankind.” Those words would become seared into my memory, an evergreen engraving on the yet-forming clay tablet that was my mind. I don’t know what it was about that landing — whether the extraterrestrial nature or just the avalanche of emotions that came with it, but by the end of the video, I was in tears, barely able to speak. My mom, concerned, asked “Refath, what’s wrong?” “I still didn’t land on the moon, mom.” My mom looked at nanu, paused, and then burst out laughing — but I stared at that gray, everlasting footprint, and knew that exact moment what I wanted to be. From that very day, every time we would go to Barnes & Nobles, I would read every book on Astronomy I could get my hands on. In a few months, our financial situation improved to the point where we could finally buy a book without thinking twice. I began thinking thoughts I’d never thunk before: If gravity is real, why don’t clouds fall on me? Why is the sky blue? Why don’t I fall off the earth if it’s spinning so fast? Our closets began filling up with countless books on space. I would borrow books on the Solar System and the Stars from the local library and “forget” to return them, and become obsessed with Carl Sagan’s “The Cosmos.” I’d go to sleep with How the Universe Works and Through the Wormhole. Astronomy became my love and my life. 

One day — a spring day like any other — my dad, coming home from his security guard job, told me he had a surprise. My birthday wasn’t close (even if it was, we were far too poor to make any difference) and there were no holidays coming up. “Are you ready?,” he asked. I nodded, with no expectations. “I’m taking Astronomy with Michio Kaku. I can take you to my class. You wanna join?” I was confused, almost in a daze, as if I’d just won the lottery. “What?” I asked in disbelief. “You can come to my Astronomy class, but you have to behave.” At the time, dad was a part-time security guard at Marshak Hall and part-time student at CCNY, pursuing a BA in Political Science. As dad’s words finally dawned on me, I began screaming and jumping all over our apartment. Lord almighty, this had never even crossed my mind! Here I was, a little Bronx kid, getting the chance to hear Michio Kaku — the Michio Kaku — in person! I just bought his latest book, Physics of the Impossible; watched all his shows, and even tuned into his Science Fantastic podcast every Sunday! That night, as I gazed out to the ceiling, I knew I’d just won the lottery, straight from rags-to-riches. All the books I’d read, the shows I watched, the podcasts I’d listened — they paid off, and I was soon about to see a physical manifestation of all the knowledge I’d accumulated. I looked up at our empty ceiling. I was poor, but pretty damn happy. 

Bronx to Harlem clocks in at 5 miles. That’s 40 minutes by Car. But we had no car. 32 minutes by bus. But we had no bus (yup, even MetroCard was too much). All we had were two feet and each other. See, the thing about joy is it makes you feel damn near invincible, and so while dad was wondering whether to grab a bottle or second-guessing a 7 year old walking five miles in one go, I had no hesitation. “Let’s go, we’ll be late!,” I yelled, refusing to take a water bottle — a decision that would come to haunt me four and half miles later. By that point, my breath was chalk-heavy and labored. I was either burning or freezing (an all-too forgetful memory doesn’t help) and my legs refused to serve me any longer — I was about to buckle. Finally, we arrived at the famous ramp, expending all our remaining strength to arrive at the doors of Marshak Hall. My dad showed his ID to security (the tables would turn in just a few hours) and we walked right in. Dad led me into a nondescript lecture hall and I followed him in. 

What I saw made me realize it was all worth it — the 5 miles coming here, and the 5 miles it would take to go back. Imagine plopping a caveman in times square — a bit like how I felt, standing in that lecture hall: row after row of velvet-red seats, stocked with chargers and desks; a soft air-conditioning filled me like a balloon — not with helium, but the joy that I’d started with. Gone was the exhaustion and fatigue, replaced by curiosity instead. As I scanned my surroundings, I saw hundreds of students, bustling about and settling into their seats, as if a movie was about to begin. Suddenly, the murmurs, chit-chats, and lights died down, and the spotlight turned to the stage — a man of ordinary height, but extraordinary stature emerged: Prof. Michio Kaku. My heart began palpitating in adrenaline and excitement. “Welcome to ASTR 305, an Introduction to Astronomy,” Prof. Kaku gestured magically. “To start the course, we begin at our home.” The stage slowly went dark as an image of the Earth came to life on the projector. “Zoom out and you’ll see the moon. Travel even further and you’ll see the Sun and the inner planets.” I stared in awe at the video before me. “And now we see the Gas Giants. Just a bit further out, you’ll find the Kuiper Belt, home to millions of asteroids and comets.” I knew comets were the harbingers of life to our earth, crashing into the molten earth with just the right speed to disseminate life onto the soon-to-be blue marble. “Zoom out even further and you’ll find we live in a galaxy: the Milky Way, more than a hundred thousand light-years across. But the Milky Way is just one of hundreds, millions, billions of galaxies, clustered into little groups. These little groups are clustered into their own superclusters, and if you zoom out just a bit further, you’ll land at the edge of the observable universe. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is our cosmic address: Earth, Solar System, Milky Way, Local Group, and of course, The Observable Universe.” If I didn’t understand relativity before, I sure did now — time flew by, making two hours a matter of minutes. And just like that, it was over. The hall erupted into applause and the students began taking their leave. A few rushed to the front of the class to get Prof. Kaku’s autograph. I tightly gripped my copy of Physics of the Impossible, highlights and all, as if it was now something sacred. “You should ask him for an autograph,” dad said. I stood dumbfounded, staring at him. “Wait, I can do that?,” I asked, incredulously. He nodded. I paused briefly and flew to the stage, possessed by a sudden drive to meet my hero. I stood behind a string of students waiting patiently for their autographs. “Young man, what do you need?,” Prof. Kaku asked, gesturing me to come forward. “I was wondering if I could take the midterm. I read your whole book, Physics of the Impossible, so I’m prepared.” Prof. Kaku chuckled, “I’m sure you’d do much better than these guys,” he said, pointing to the crowd. The crowd laughed, and Prof. Kaku graciously autographed my book. If I ever need a reminder of where it all started from, I look to my bookshelf — as full of Astronomy books now as it was ten years ago — and my gaze lands on Physics of the Impossible, and I think back to those beautiful Spring evenings I spent in the lecture hall with Prof. Michio Kaku.

10 years, a pandemic, and a graduation later, I’ve come back to where I started: City College. And as a Physics Major and Artificial Intelligence Researcher, no less. And would you believe it? I’m taking the same course my dad took me to in Spring 2011: ASTR 305, Methods of Astronomy, with Prof. Michael Lubell — my questions, as is Prof. Lubell’s patience, is infinite and I ask as many as time will allow. But when the clock runs out and the Zoom meet closes, I think back to how it all started with a curious young boy, a 352-page physics book, and a remarkable teacher named Prof. Michio Kaku. Thank you Prof. Kaku, for inspiring me and countless generations of CCNY students to see the beauty and power of Physics.