“How much do you want to know?” -Professor Kannan “Jagu” Jagannathan
Way back in 2007—at least, I think it was 2007—my friends and I were playing frisbee on the grass outside Valentine Dining Hall at Amherst College. I wasn’t one of those people who can make the frisbee fly forever. I liked how it floated, though. So we were playing, and I was probably running back and forth fumbling catches, and I saw two things: the frisbee hushing through the air, and my physics professor walking across the quad. I ran over to him.
“Hey professor,” I said, “how does a frisbee work?”
Jagu looked at me for a moment, and then a moment longer. His head tilted to the side as though his thoughts were running deeper and deeper. “I’m not sure I understand myself,” he said. After another moment there was a smile in his eyes. “How much do you want to know?”
There is so much to learn in every direction. I’m working in the Writers Workshop this semester, which means I go from talking with a journalism graduate student about the different ways America and China have covered the pandemic to with an Iranian aerospace engineering student about research opportunities in space programs to a linguistic anthropologist about the different ways we imagine history. Then I have a Kit-Kat and head back for the next three sessions. Sometimes, Jagu’s comment sounds—not quite like a warning, but like a reminder to assess my own intentions. ‘There are lots of paths,’ he seems to be saying, ‘and all of them go a long way. How far do you mean to walk this one?’ There are so many paths to explore, so many questions to ask, and they all lead to more questions. So which ones will I pick up?
Other times, Jagu’s comment sounds more like an invitation, like a mischievous magician about to reveal the first step of their trick—which will give you an answer, yes, but will also bring you into a new world of sleight of hand and practice, of hundreds of years of tradition and knowledge. Of course illusions have a lot of reality built into them, propping them up. Sometimes I walk by, asking a question, letting it go after half a minute of idle thought. Sometimes I really want to examine the walls. Everything’s built from something, bricks and mortar or 2x4s and nails or dreams and lies. Every builder has their reasons (some perhaps they knew, and some perhaps they didn’t), and every wall has space inside it and behind it. Usually I skate by. Sometimes I see Jagu out on a field as a frisbee floats by and he says, “How much do you want to know?”