Vijai Dixit is a professor of both physics and Hindi, two very different disciplines at first glance. Dixit, however, easily finds a connection between the two.
“Both are like poetry,” he said. “I tell my students they should be good enough in math that it feels like a poem. Every word a student learns in Hindi, I have a song for. I am a great lover of poetry, and to me, everything can be a poem.”
Dixit has been teaching in the physics department at Saint Louis University for the last 27 years, a job he said he obtained by chance. In 1983, he and his wife went to visit a friend who taught at Parks College.
“I happened to talk to the chair of science and mathematics,” Dixit said. “We chatted for two hours and the job offer was made right then and there.”
Prior to teaching at SLU, Dixit lived and worked in a multitude of different countries, including Jamaica, Belgium and Germany. His favorite place to live, however, was in Shiraz, Iran.
“Maybe it was because I was young and newly married. It was a beautiful place,” Dixit said. “It was a pleasant mixture of east and west when I was there.”
Along with his impressive resume of countries, Dixit also speaks a variety of languages. He speaks Hindi, French, Dutch, Urdu, a bit of German and several kinds of Indian languages. Currently, he is teaching himself Spanish.
“I watch Harry Potter in Spanish with English subtitles. It’s very helpful,” Dixit said. “That’s how I learned Dutch and French while in Belgium, by watching movies with subtitles.”
Dixit also incorporates this language learning technique in his Hindi classes; classes, he said, remain thankfully small. He attests he loves working at SLU, but the growing class sizes, particularly in the science departments, is something he is not a fan of.
“More and more classes in science are becoming too big, and it is a disservice to students,” Dixit said. “The teachers don’t have enough office hours and there are not enough qualified TA’s.”
Dixit understands the importance of students having access to teachers in part because it was a teacher of his own that sparked his love for physics. He said that his teacher’s enthusiasm for the subject inspired his own passion in the area.
“I’m the kind of guy who wants to know everything,” Dixit said. “I’ve wandered the field of physics in many directions. My basic love is in elementary particle physics, but I am getting interested in matters biological.”
His love of learning is not just limited to sciences, however. For fun, he is studying Greek mythology and drawing parallels between those and Indian myths. He also has an interest and foundation in literature, something he said is fairly unique for someone of his background.
“When I was growing up in India, I did not initially study music or dancing or something because they are considered ‘sissy’ topics,”Dixit said. “Right from the beginning it was science and mathematics, so it was peculiar that I did so well in literature. Most boys are not supposed to do anything in literature.”
Part of the reason Dixit believes his literature studies were so successful was that his father was a professor of language and also a poet. He thinks he likely inherited his interest for literature from his father.
With his focus on teaching and learning, Dixit said he does not have much free time. The little he has he spends playing with his dog, Rocco, and reading for fun otherwise., He said he has a great interest in the art of telling jokes.
“I am a compulsive joke-teller, and my sense of humor allows me to see the irony in my own life and in the world around me,” Dixit said. “My sense of humor has helped me survive many situations. It’s all easier if you can laugh at it.”