In Memoriam of Inder & Uma
On September 25, 2007 the UIC community gathered with the Batra family to remember our dear friends Inder and Uma Batra, hosted in conjunction with the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. Follows is the publication made in honor of them and distributed at the memorial. The Physics Department would like to thank everyone for their outpouring of support during this sad time. Prof Batra believed strongly in the crucial role of science in society. He donated his personal funds to start the "Inder P. Batra Physics Undergraduate Award", to be awarded each semester to a student who scores top grades in Phys 141. This award, now renamed to "Inder P. and Uma Batra Memorial Physics Undergraduate Award" will continue to make a great difference in many students' lives. You may make your contribution in their memory through this webpage.
Inder Paul Batra was born on June 25, 1942 in Mighiana, Punjab, in pre-partition India. He was the second of five children born to Seth Sawan Mal and Srimati Santi Devi. His two brothers, Surinder and Arjun, and his two sisters, Sudesh and Nirmal, remember Inder as a creative story teller who was always making everyone smile. The family faced some hardships early on due to the family’s displacement after Partition and the untimely death of his father. But hardships only serve to strengthen family bonds, and so even as fate started to chart a different course for each sibling, their love for each other grew. In 1965, Inder became the first in his family to travel to the West. After finishing his M.S. in Physics at Delhi University, he went to the University of British Columbia for his doctoral degree, which he completed at Simon Frasier University. He landed a position as a physicist at IBM Research Labs and joined the company in 1969. The following year, he would return to India in order to make the best decision of his life: finding and marrying his soulmate.
Uma Batra was born as Uma Leekha on September 16, 1949 in Nangal, Punjab, India. She was one of five children (and the youngest of three daughters) born to Shri Manohar Lal and Ram P. Leekha. Uma earned her Bachelors degree from Lady Irwin College, Delhi, and would later earn a second Bachelors degree from San Jose State University. This was very characteristic of Uma; her siblings remember how much she, more than anyone else, loved being in a classroom. They also remember the many times when they were all sitting together chatting and Uma would say something to make everyone laugh. That was her special ability, as a child and as an adult: to make a large impact by saying just a few simple words.
On October 2, 1970, Inder and Uma’s lives were forever joined together. They were married at the Oberoi Hotel in New Delhi, India, and one week later they were on a plane to the U.S. For most of the next 37 years, San Jose, California would be their home.
Although Inder spent most of his working life (almost 30 years) at IBM, he found his true calling when he joined the faculty as head of the Physics department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Over these two careers, Inder wrote over 200 technical papers and associated closely with many brilliant minds, including multiple Nobel laureates. But life at UIC was a dream come true, because in addition to making a scientific contribution, he could make an impact on young, aspiring physicists. No student will ever forget the professor who decided that the best way to expose the inherent conflict between the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics was to write a one-act play in which Albert Einstein is put on trial for running a red light. In its review of the opening night performance, the UIC daily newspaper commented on Inder’s creative approach to education: “Hopefully, with inspiration from Professor Batra, other teachers will follow this road to academic success.” Perhaps the reason Inder was so spectacular in the classroom is that teaching allowed for an expression of his two greatest passions: to educate and to entertain. But these two passions did not just manifest themselves in front of his students. His friends and associates all learned from the deep conversations Inder loved to have. And no one can remember a single party at which Inder was not making everyone around him laugh out loud with his playful ched-khani (teasing).
Uma’s life in the U.S. was just as lively. She became a registered dietician and practiced for almost 30 years. During most of these years, she gave freely of her time and her expertise as a volunteer. She even rubbed off on Inder: the two of them became very dedicated to the pursuit of fitness and healthy living. Uma even introduced Inder to yoga, one of the passions she cultivated later in life. Working with patients for so many years also contributed to the gentleness she brought to all of her relationships. Inder may have been the one to break the ice with a joke when first meeting someone new, but it was Uma’s charm and warmth that cemented the long-lasting relationships the two of them created with so many people.
Inder and Uma had committed their lives to one another, but as everyone knows, they lived for their children. Their first daughter , Puja, was born on May 30, 1975. Almost four years later, on February 27, 1979, their lives would be enriched once more with the birt h of their second daughter, Mala. Of course, words cannot do justice to the depth of their relationship with Puja and Mala. But if you ever saw the look in their eyes when anyone mentioned Puja or Mala’s name, you know that their lives revolved entirely around t he happiness and well-being of their daughters. This love found its expression in the way these two were raised. Inder and Uma w ere committed to raising daughters who were warm and loving, and who had their parents’ sense of character and charity. They als o recognized the need for Puja and Mala to grow to be strong, independent, successful women who could guide their own destinies. They s ucceeded on all accounts. Puja graduated from Harvard Law School in 1999 and Mala graduated from Harvard Business School in 2007.&n bsp; These were two of Inder and Uma’s proudest moments. The only day that was closer to their hearts was July 4, 2004, when Puj a married Rohan Nageswaran.
Inder and Uma worked hard their whole lives, but there was still plenty of time for play. Inder and Uma loved tennis, skiing, and playing as much bridge as possible. They also had an incredibly large group of friends, but more incredible still is how close all of these friendships were. Their friends remember them as the most welcoming, warm, generous, and kind people they ever met. Many friends who moved from India recall how Inder and Uma were the first couple to welcome them to the U.S.
When you think of Inder and Uma, probably the word that comes most quickly to mind is “partners.” And these two were partners—in everything. This partnership was further cemented after Inder and Uma moved to Chicago and started to spend every free moment together—walking together in parks, going to the theater, enjoying outdoor concerts, and traveling. They were such great partners not only because they enjoyed doing things together, which they certainly did, but even more so because they just did not know how to be apart. Whenever the two of them had plans to make, Inder was the one making an extraordinarily detailed list of things that needed to get done. When they were at a new restaurant, it was Uma’s job to figure out what her husband would enjoy most on the menu. These two would miss each other terribly if they had to go it alone even for a week. They simply were never meant to be apart. And perhaps this is the one comfort that we can take as we face this tragedy.
Despite our strong belief systems, no one knows for certain what happens after our time on earth has passed. But there is one thing that everyone here knows for certain. Inder and Uma are together, and they are as happy, as in love, and as inseparable now as they were when we all had the good fortune of having them in our lives. We pray today not so much for their souls, which are surely at peace and eternally together, but for ourselves…may our lives be as fulfilling as were the lives of those to whom we bid farewell, and may we have the strength to carry on with the same level of love, laughter, and passion for life as Inder and Uma always wished upon us.
What follows are remembrances of Inder and Uma sent to the UIC Physics department from friends and colleagues. Some were received very soon after the news of the tragedy, and some have been written more recently. We thank everyone for their outpouring of support and hope that by sharing our memories, stories, and sincere wishes, we can ensure that our dear friends Inder and Uma will never be forgotten.
From: Abraham, Valsamma M [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Tuesday, September 18, 2007 8:13 PM
Subject: Re: Written remembrances of the Batras
Prof. Batra & Uma,
Both of you will always be in my heart. Not a day goes by when I don't think of you, your soft voice and your sense of humor. I consider it was a privilege to work for you and assist you. When I was leaving department of Physics Prof. Batra wrote “Sad to see you leave us but – all the best still!!". Uma, you were like an older sister to me in a new country. You have touched our lives. Thank you very much for everything. God bless your souls.
Good Bye Dr. Batra
I can’t believe it! I was watching the news and a forward came on stating a UIC Professor had been killed in California. After the commercial, the news anchor told the story of Dr. Inder Batra, who taught at UIC in the Department of Physics had been killed by a young man who, accompanied by a companion, was driving way too fast. I guess my mind stopped functioning then since I did not hear that Uma had also died; that I learned when I called Melodie, a friend who still worked in the Physics Department.
I am still processing the loss of these two special people. I don’t have to face the empty office everyday or expect to see him walking down the hall; I think maybe it was a very good thing for me to have left the Department of Physics when I did. I think of Dr. Batra often and the special working relationship that we had and how that relationship turned into a special friendship which included his wife, Uma.
I think of many stories; we all know how Dr. Batra loved a good story in fact at every gathering whether it be staff or friends, he would ask that we go around the table or room each taking a turn telling a story or a joke. He would usually pick on me first to break the ice. I remember the last time he asked me to go first; it was at the Indian Physicists’ Seminar Dinner. But I turned the table on him; I told a story about him:
“He was a great boss but I was somewhat concerned when he stepped down as Head of the Department; where would my loyalties lie. When the time came for him to step down not only did he look years younger and always had a smile on his face, he also made sure that in no way was I put into a compromising position. Dr. Batra did not ask for special favors nor did spend a lot of time in the front office. He was very well aware of my position and made sure that I was not placed in the middle; he was looking out for my well being”.
I remember the Indian Physicists’ Seminar Dinners where I was the only non-Indian person at the table and how everyone made sure that I had enough to eat and Dr. Batra and Uma (mostly Uma) made sure that I did not eat anything too hot or spicy. We laughed, ate and had lots of fun; I was given an Indian name (Janaki) to make me feel more connected and I did!
Dr. Batra loved the students and was always available to them. I would walk in his office and he would be at the board explaining some physics thing to one or more students. When teaching 244 he would hold a “studython” from 4:00pm to ??? for students who wanted to study together and get their questions answered before the final; pizza would be served throughout the night thanks to Dr. Batra. If you walked by 2214, you would see students sitting everywhere - couches, chairs, tables and all over the floor; the students came to study.
“The Trial: A Scientific Comedy” was written by Dr. Batra to give his 244 students a different fun way of looking at the Theory of Relativity (is there a fun way?). There were three characters, the Judge, the Prosecutor, and Einstein’s Twin. Dr. Batra acted as the expert witness. I was usually the judge wearing my father’s judicial robes. Dr. Batra wanted us to act bigger than life, so we had to exaggerate our lines and improvise. I loved ordering the professors including Dr. Batra to be quiet or they would be held in contempt of court; and at times hair would fly (literally, Professor Tom Imbo would throw is wild wig at me showing off his wild head of hair).
The UIContest was a general knowledge contest for State of Illinois High School students sponsored by the Provost Office and the Department of Physics. Dr. Batra loved the day of the Contest but not so much the preparation. He did not like the amount of work it put on me, taking me away from my other duties and away from assisting him. But he did shine on the Contest Day, opening with a welcome, a story and some physics theory. I remember Uma walking back and forth on the stage to show a concept as Dr. Batra asked questions of the audience, students, parents and guests. Uma and Dr. Batra worked as a team. We all had such a good time, especially Dr. Batra asking any and all students to come to UIC and study Physics. He loved giving out the prizes and greeting the winners of the Contest. Again, his love of students was very apparent.
Dr. Batra was a strong leader not afraid of standing alone when he knew he was right. He loved Physics and wanted to make the Department of Physics at the University of Illinois better for his being here. He was a manager who wanted his Department to be fiscally responsible. He was a researcher who wanted to push the frontiers of science. Dr. Batra was a story teller and a teacher who advocated for the student.
Remember the stories. Always remember the stories.
From: Paul M. Grant [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Tuesday, July 24, 2007 8:41 PM
Subject: Inder Batra
Dear Prof. Aratyn,
You may have heard the sad news about Inder. In any event, I attach an article from today’s San Jose Mercury-News website. I am trying to find out if there will be a memorial gathering for Inder and Uma here in San Jose…if you hear about such an event please inform me forthwith and I will do likewise on my part.
Inder Batra was one of my best friends in the 70s and early 80s at IBM and we published about five papers together. When he came in 1968, we shared an office for two years. I was his sponsor for American citizenship and prepped him for his exam. He was one of the most generous and agreeable humans I ever met. He insisted I be first author on all our papers, even when I didn’t deserve it. For a physicist, you can’t get more generous than that!
Paul M. Grant, PhD
Principal, W2AGZ Technologies
Visiting Scholar, Applied Physics, Stanford University
EPRI Science Fellow (Retired)
IBM Research Staff Member Emeritus
From: Bikash C, Gupta [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Friday, September 21, 2007 6:43 AM
To: Stephanie Clarke
Subject: Re: Written remembrances of the Batras
"Prof. Batra was our mentor. We terribly miss the Batras and they will always be remembered by us"
Bikash & Tanu
From: Majumdar, Rabi [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Friday, September 21, 2007 11:57 AM
To: Stephanie Clarke
Cc: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Subject: Re: Written remembrances of the Batras
REMEMBRANCE OF THE BATRAS
The sudden unexpected news of the accident came to me and my family as a bolt from the blue. I was about to Leave Chicago after my summer teaching program in July 2007, when I was told that the Batras are no more. I was indeed very sad to lose my old friends like Inder and Uma.
I had known Inder for over 40 years. It dates back to my student days at the University of Delhi in India. Apart from discussing Physics, we often spend time together in the University Coffee House, which was very popular with the students. I was doing my Ph. D. in Physics at that time, while Inder completed his Master's degree and left for Canada.
We lost touch with each other since then. I knew that he was with the IBM in California. After a gap of nearly 30 years, we met in the corridors of UIC Physics Department in 1998. I was teaching a course, while Inder came to Chicago to join UIC as the Department Head. Since then we had a renewed friendship and I shared many happy moments with him during my trips to Chicago for nearly 10 years. I had many academic discussions with Inder during these years. The scientific community will miss him very much. I am also grateful to Uma for her kind hospitality.
Inder and Uma were a perfect couple and had a very happy family. Their untimely death is a great loss to their daughters. I would like to convey my deep respect to the departed couple.
It is hard to think clearly – made even more difficult by the suddenness of our loss. There are many matters I could talk about, I will share three.
The first matter is a memory, and that memory is meeting Inder for the first time. The time was fall of the year 1999. I was in a private meeting with Inder during my interview process for a junior tenure-track Faculty position at UIC. Inder, who was to me at that point Professor Dr. Inder P. Batra, Ph.D. and Head of the Physics Department, asked me a question. I cannot promise exact words but my memory recalls “How long do you think it would take you to bring a Nobel Prize to the Physics Department at UIC?” Despite my answer, which also did not include any promises, I was still offered the position. Inder was never afraid to think big. And he was still willing to take a chance on someone who could not make equally big promises.
The second matter is an illustration of Inder’s support for his junior faculty when he was Department Head. The year was 2002 and I was just such a junior faculty member, almost half-way to the looming tenure “chopping-block”, with a unique, exciting, one-time opportunity to become project manager of a large experiment at Brookhaven National Laboratory. The only difficulty – I would need to be away from UIC for the entire spring semester in 2003. Inder’s first reaction was; we’ll find a way. A bit of double-teaching here and other arrangements there, and within a few days we had a plan and the plan was a go. I have no doubt that Inder’s support at that critical time greatly aided in the current success of my academic career. Inder always cared and was willing to make things happen in the pursuit of that caring.
The third matter is a play, or more specifically Inder’s physics play that he wrote to be given to his undergraduate physics students. I mention this because, despite my complete lack of acting ability, Inder asked me to be in his play. I was initially offered the part of Judge–likely because of casting concerns about my acting ability. Other than standing tall and looking imposing, the Judge didn’t have too many lines or difficult scenes. After a few years trying to be the best Judge I could, I was, for one particular performance, offered the position of prosecutor. I took that to mean I was improving. I tell this story not just because it is a wonderful memory for me, but also because it illustrates that Inder cared greatly for his students. He went out of his way to help make physics come alive. He never forgot that it is the education of our future generations that is the only reason any University, including UIC, exists.
Knowing Inder has enriched my life in many ways. He will be missed. I will not forget.
David J. Hofman
Associate Professor of Physics
Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2007 18:17:21 -0500
From: "Mrinalini C. Rao" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
To: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Subject: Deep Condolences
Dear Russell, Mark and Henrik:
It is with profound shock and saddness that I heard about the tragic death of Inder Batra and his wife Uma. I got a call from the Chicago office and my deepest condolences to all of you on the loss of your colleague and to the entire Physics Department. Inder's contributions were many and varied but what resonated most with me was that he told me he had instituted a prize in Physics for deserving students at our alma mater, Delhi University. If you have any information about an address for his daughters, I would appreciate receiving it as I would like to send a condolence card.
Mrinalini C. Rao, Ph.D.
Vice President for Academic Affairs
University of Illinois
(Professor, Department of Physiology & Biophysics)
“The ideal teacher is one who combines both traits; 1) the power and diligence to master a subject thoroughly, and 2) the ability to communicate his knowledge in an interesting and stimulating fashion.” - Sydney Harris-
Inder P. Batra possessed both traits, whether it was holding the attention of his students well after class had ended and sometimes into the night with pizza, or chatting with office staff regarding leading healthier lifestyles. Though soft spoken, he communicated his knowledge of Physics in a creative manner to students and displayed a genuine concern for each person’s well being he interacted with. He will be truly missed as a Professor and Friend to the office staff.
September 24, 2007
Prof. Henrik Aratyn
Department of Physics
University of Illinois at Chicago
845 W. Taylor Street
Chicago, IL 60607
Please accept my apologies for missing the memorial service for Inder and Uma Batra. As someone who served beside him as a Department Head during his time at UIC, I would like to share a brief reminiscence about him, perhaps to be part of the record you establish of his work at UIC.
Inder Batra’s contributions to UIC included many perspectives that he developed during his work at IBM. But he was also well equipped, in temperament especially, to see the particular opportunities that come from academia’s open sharing of ideas and education of students. His special background meant he had particular contributions to make whenever issues of service, intellectual activity, management, and resources combined.
This was hugely important as we worked to plan for the Advanced Chemical Technology Building, where he was able to contribute many ideas about the interaction of spaces that were public with those that housed research and had to be kept secure. He was the only one able to design a program that would integrate activity in both ACTB and SES, because he understood the ways in which research could benefit from having critical functions in adjacent areas that did not duplicate their functions.
Of course, his contributions were also more than technical. He had an authentic humanism about himself, one that came out in his easy conversational style, his sense of language, and most of all the way in which he tried to understand others. Even my disagreements with him were often, I daresay, pleasant experiences because I knew I was working with someone who saw it as very important that disagreements not become a point of fracture. He did this by ending a meeting with a positive interaction, whether it was about something else in our work, an event on campus, or something about our families. That tactic taught me, and I trust others, much about how ensure that working relationships always remain positive.
I know that this is a time of tremendous and tragic loss for his family, for your department, and of course for UIC. I hope you can all feel some comfort, as I do, in knowing that Inder would have marked such an occasion of loss with an equally profound sense of pride at what was accomplished through his efforts.
From: Shiva Prasad [mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org]
Sent: Wednesday, July 25, 2007 5:10 AM
Subject: Condolences for Prof. and Mrs. Batra
My dear Prof. Aratyn,
Just now I heard the sad news of the terrible accident that took the life of one of our closest friends Prof. and Mrs. Batra. I have no words to express my shock and grief at this incident. He was not only our friend but a great Physicist. He was the one who introduced me to UIC, where I was visiting professor for three years. We together worked on a book, which unfortunately could not see the light of the day. He was a mentor to many young persons. But above all he was a lovable person, a great host a thorough gentleman and a great human being. Their death is a personal loss to many of us, which is impossible to recover. It is also a loss to Physics community as a whole.
My wife Geeta joins me in offering our sincere condolences to the Department of Physics, UIC and the bereaved family. I request to forward this mail to appropriate persons and the immediate family of Prof. and Mrs. Batra.
Professor of Physics (IIT Bombay)
Presently: Director Indo- French Centre for Promotion of Advanced Research
5B, Ground floor, India Habitat Centre Lodhi Road
New Delhi- 110 003 (India)
In Memory of my Friends: Inder and Uma Batra
It was July 25, 2007. As usual the first thing I did that morning upon coming to my office is to open my email. At the top was an email from an old of friend of mine from India, G. P. Das, asking me if I knew anything about the tragic death of Inder and Uma in an automobile accident. I was shocked beyond belief. My wife, son, and I had dinner with Inder and Uma in an Indian restaurant in Chicago on April 18, 2007. I could not believe how two such beautiful people can disappear from this world and that I will never see them again.
I have known Inder for a very long time. Much before I had the fortune to meet with him, I knew of his seminal work on semiconductors. One day while he was still working at IBM, I received a letter that he wanted to visit me in my university in Richmond. I was thrilled that some one of his stature would come to meet with me and that too at my university! That was more than 15 years ago. It was a visit I will remember for the rest of my life. Inder gave a talk about computers and the physics that can be done with it. His enthusiasm and love for physics, his infectious drive to understand the most complicated phenomena in the simplest terms, his ability to explain what he does to a layman, his gentle and polite nature, and most of all his warmth was something I have rarely seen. From that day onward we became close friends. He told me many times that his decision to leave IBM and come to Chicago was crystallized during his visit to Richmond by seeing how much fun I and two of colleagues of Indian origin were having working together. He wanted to create that environment. That is when he decided to move to UIC.
Inder started a seminar series which he called the “Indian Summit”. Every summer he would invite well known physicists from India to come to UIC to teach. He took that occasion to invite a few of his physicist friends of Indian origin working in the USA and hold a day long seminar that would culminate with a dinner in an Indian restaurant. He used to open the seminar with a simple sentence: “I want you to explain in simple language why what you are doing is so important, what it will mean for the man-kind so that I can go home in the evening and tell Uma”. This statement can only come from a man who saw the world in its most beautiful form - simple. I will always miss that annual event. This is where I first met Uma. I have rarely seen two people so much in love with each other. They were always smiling, always gentle, always kind, and always the perfect couple. The only consolation when I think of them, and never a day goes by when I do not think of them, is that they were together in life and now together in death. But then, I think of their two lovely daughters- Mala and Puja without their parents. I never met Puja, but the day she went to Harvard is the day our son went to MIT. We were there to get them settled. Inder, my wife, and I had dinner together that night and he could feel our sadness in leaving our only child for the first time in a far away place. He made us laugh that evening by telling jokes and to this day my wife tells that joke to every one when their child is going off to college for the first time.
I saw Inder and Uma many times during the past 15 years both in Chicago and in conferences around the world. I hated to see the conference end as I will not be seeing them for a while. Now, I do not know when I will see them again. But when I do see them my first word will be that it was not fair of them to have left us alone. I pray every day that their souls rest in peace and that Mala, Puja, and her family have the strength to go through their lives without these two wonderful parents. I feel fortunate that I had the privilege to have known them, and the fortune to call them my friends. I miss them dearly.
On the next few pages, you will find a sampling of letters written by Professor Batra for UIC Today, including an introduction he wrote to encompass them in 2002. They showcase his wit and caring and we are grateful to have these to remember him by.
Letters To My Students
From April 29, 2001 until April 29, 2002, I had the privilege and pleasure to write biweekly letters to my students at UIC through the medium of Chicago’s daily university Newspaper (UIC Today). These letters cover a broad range of topics of general interest. I wish to thank Ms. Janis Hayden, my executive assistant, for her help in editing these letters. I hope this collection will inform, inspire and intrigue you. I present here a collection of all these letters.
Welcome to my Department
August 30, 2001
Imagine late one evening you are driving down a country road by the side of a stream and one of your tires suddenly goes flat. So, you gently pull over to the side. Walk over to the trunk where a flashlight and a properly inflated spare await you. You remove the flat tire, carefully placing all four nuts in the hubcap. As you are retrieving the spare, a wild animal knocks over your hubcap causing the four nuts to disappear in the stream. Now what do you do? If that was me, I would simply panic! But you go to UIC (better still you have intentions to major in physics) and are capable of solving all kinds of problems.
I will be happy to listen to your creative solution(s) when you come to see me in my office on campus. I am located in SES (room #2246) at UIC and you are invited to visit with me anytime. As an undergraduate physics student at UIC you have an outstanding opportunity to study in an active and diverse department which includes 30 faculty members representing research interests in such wide‑ranging areas as laser physics, semiconductor physics, optical properties of materials, magnetism, superconductivity, high energy physics, and biophysics.
The department mission is to excel in teaching while pushing the frontiers of science. In this spirit, as you might well guess, faculty members, who are highly student‑centric, teach all courses. You will learn problem‑solving techniques; a skill all employers fine highly desirable. But making a living is only a small part of making a life. So I will encourage you go to for a full undergraduate experience.
If you are freshman and intend to go into physics I will also invite you to apply for the Physics’ Head Scholarship. (see detailed announcement below) This one year scholarship is awarded every fall to an entering Freshman Physics Major.
Teaching Is Part-Acting
September 20, 2001
I have heard from a couple of students that Physics at UIC is hard and they have been advised by friends to take it at a community college. I am sure this advice has been given free of charge and is only worth what you paid for it! If we always looked for the easy way through life and took shortcuts, there would be no lasers, no airplanes, no MRI machines, no electricity and certainly no cars to take you to community colleges. What if a child thought, walking is too hard to learn, let me just crawl instead?
I want to share with you my teaching philosophy. There is something rather odd about this sentence because I am neither a philosopher (a doctorate in physics does not a philosopher make) nor a teacher (having worked in industry for the better part of my life). But now that the introduction is out of the way, let me articulate that teaching is a lot about caring and being student-centric. Teaching is also part acting, but UIC physics can not claim a monopoly on that. What UIC physics department does have are teachers who are accomplished scientists. We, like many other universities, have teachers who have continued to be at the forefronts of their discipline and thus have the knowledge and the experience to teach various aspects of physics to our students. Unfortunately, at a large number of universities such people are just too busy staying at the forefronts and leaving the teaching to assistants. On the other hand, community colleges do not have the facilities to attract great researchers. In our Physics department, all courses are taught by our esteemed faculty members.
In my opinion, Professor Richard Feynman of Caltech was the best teacher of physics who ever walked this earth. He won the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics. But to many students of physics he was known for his three red volumes, 'The Feynman Lectures on Physics' in which he explains the concepts in physics in a theatrical and engaging fashion. He was a researcher, a storyteller, and fittingly the volumes carry his picture playing bongo drums, not solving complex differential equations. Closer to home, we have many prize winning faculty members in the Physics department and you owe it to yourselves to take a course or two in physics (even though not required) to complete your undergraduate experience at UIC. I admit that only a few of our professors have taken professional lessons in drama, but the art of teaching comes naturally to our professors.
And, of course, you my dear students (from my class of PHYS 244 and LAS 100) are the most generous people. You are willing to overlook my shortcomings. I do not have a booming voice and on top of that I have an accent. You strain to understand me and I am forever grateful. I would have missed out on a wonderful experience if you had left me to go to a community college. What a tragic loss that would have been!
What's wrong with a B?
October 11, 2001
Soon after the grades are assigned at the end of each semester, several students stop by my office to "discuss" their grades. Those with 'B's believe they should get 'A's; in general, one grade higher than what the professor "erroneously" assigned. I am usually very sympathetic (since I have no real authority to arbitrarily change their grades) but also saddened by this "preoccupation" with grades. I admire and laude the fact that you have a high self-esteem and consider yourselves more accomplished than the assigned grade.
There is a famous verse in the Gita, an esteemed book on Hindu Philosophy, (Chapter II (47)) which speaks of actions without concern for the rewards. The Nishkama Karma (work without desire or attachment) states that action alone hast thou a right and never at all to its fruits…. Being unattached to results does not mean lack of purpose. When you take any class, your purpose should be clear. You want to master the subject, you want to learn, and you want to absorb knowledge. Nothing should matter, except the fulfillment of the purpose, least of all the grade!
When my daughter, Puja, was in the eighth grade in the middle school, she was advised by her math teacher to take an advanced class in Algebra in a nearby high school. Puja would have undoubtedly scored an 'A' had she taken the Algebra class in her middle school. Well, she went to the high school Algebra class and obtained a 'B'. Did she regret it then, you bet! (This was the only 'B' on her report card). Did the high school algebra class help her in the long run, you bet! She received her undergraduate degree at Berkeley (some math requirements waived) in three years; went on to Harvard Law School; and now, is clerking for a Federal Judge. And if I had not told you that she got a 'B', you would never have known!
November 21, 2001
What would I like to be when I grow up? This one sentence belies more complexities than the whole of quantum mechanics. First of all it assumes that I can be whatever I’d like- but more importantly there is an underlying thought that I will "grow up” someday. Approaching fifty, and still hoping! But when I was young (and foolish) I did ponder this issue. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could read books and dissect, digest, and analyze the ideas contained therein as a profession? But I would also need to make some money for food and shelter and to be able to occasionally go to movies. Is there a job out there that fits this description? I wondered!
I know most of you are as young today as I once was (but you are certainly more matured than I, both now and then) and are possibly wondering what profession to choose. The best advice I can give is not to underestimate your abilities. Replace your self-doubts with enthusiasm and dare to dream. There are professions that offer job security and others that involve more risks. Sitting in a plane parked at a gate may feel very secure but remember you are not going anywhere; for that you must risk flying. No person who is enthusiastic about his/her work ever has to worry about job security. Money? Well, it somehow tags along when you are having fun in your job. People who are miserable in their jobs are generally also on the low end of the pay spectrum, though, very often these people confuse the cause and effect. My feeling is that if one doesn’t jump out of bed to get to work, there is prima-facie evidence for change; merely getting out of bed is not good enough. I can say that all occupations have a big money promise if you (i) are really enthusiastic about it and (ii) give it the maximum effort. So whether you choose to become a physicist or a teacher, you can set the parameters of success and dare to exceed them.
Sometimes students are leery of going into physics and lament that all discoveries in science (physics in particular) have already been made. Even one of our greatest scientists (Dirac) announced in 1929 that, “the physical laws for a large part of physics and the whole of chemistry are completely known”. This was before the discovery of lasers, theory of superconductivity, quarks, QED, QCD, CP-violation, string theory, density-functional theory, dark matter, and black holes, just to name a few. It shows how difficult it is to make predictions, especially about the future!
Even today, we do not know the origin of the universe; the big-bang theory still has not been experimentally verified. The missing mass, the Omni-present background radiation, the Higgs particle, the grand unification, room temperature superconductors, quantum computers, useful applications of Nanoscience, the ultimate miniaturization, atoms on demand, the smart cars, and order in chaos are only some of the secrets that nature awaits to reveal to your inquiring minds. And what about all those new ideas that I know nothing about? If I did, they would no longer be new. To say that all scientific discoveries have been made is to say that the world does not need any further prosperity and improvement on an intellectual or economic level. That is what scientists call Sun death, the state of absolute maximum entropy. I hope we are far from that because I am still deciding what to be when I grow up. Until that time I am in this purgatory of a physics professor, which gives me money for food and shelter, plus an occasional movie or two. But it gives me the ultimate freedom to read any book I like, even reading (and trying to understand), “How Milton Works”. Of course what profession you choose is unique for each of you, and that is what makes this planet an exciting place to inhabit.
January 31, 2002
I have often wondered what force attracts me to my wife, electricity or may be just the attraction of opposites. You have all learned that opposite charges (one positive and one negative) always attract while the like charges repel each other. These forces of attraction or repulsion become stronger as the distance between the objects become smaller. Could it be that males and females simply have a preponderance of unlike charges and hence the attraction? This hypothesis seems to be challenged in the modern world now that an alternative life-style is a no longer taboo. Or is it the gravity, which is always attractive? No, not likely. Neither my wife nor I are all that massive (though in my own case this is debatable). Could it be a question to be answered by Chemistry rather than Physics?
The dance going on in the atoms has taught us that the negatively charged electrons go around the positively charged nucleus and indeed it is the attraction of opposites that holds them together. But wait a minute, what about the nucleus itself? It is positively charged since it contains many protons each having a positive charge. Since the size of the nucleus is very tiny then the protons must sit very close possibly touching each other. Did we not say that the like charges repel ever so strongly when they are so close to each other? Why doesn't the nucleus explode due to the strong proton-proton repulsion? Is the alternative life-style too prevalent in a nucleus, or have I been cornered?
The beauty of Physics is that we are always permitted to put forward a new hypothesis to get out of a tight spot. As you may know, no law of physics can ever be proved right. They only await the next piece of experimental evidence to disprove them. So until someone designs an experiment to disprove your thesis, you are at liberty to expound as you wish. So hypothesize without fear; the danger is if what you say is continually disproved, soon no one will pay any attention to you.
To explain this dichotomy of many positive protons residing inside a tiny nucleus, scientists postulated a Strong force whose range is only 0.000,000,000,0001 Centimeter. To get the benefit of this Strong attractive force, protons must in fact be extremely close to each other. This Strong force totally overwhelms any repulsion arising due to like charges. The postulate then is that you might as well turn off the charges on the particles in the domain of the Strong force. A bold postulate, but no experiment has yet overturned it!
Physicists know of only four kinds of forces: Gravitational, Weak, Electromagnetic, and Strong, in order of increasing intensity. Gravitational force is always attractive and acts between masses. It holds astronomical bodies together. If you have mass (I am sure you do), there is no way to escape gravity. Just try jumping up in the air and feel the effect of gravity! Be careful; don’t hurt yourself. Electromagnetic force acts between charged particles and can be attractive or repulsive. It holds atoms and molecules together and allows the Earth to exist. Strong forces exist among particles inside a nucleus and keep them together confined in a very small space. The Weak force does not hold anything together but it does mediate the conversion of certain particles into other particles.
When I push my wife and she pushes me back, what forces are at work? I don't know! But scientists tell me that the electromagnetic force is at work. However, when I give her a hug, and she holds me in return, no physicist knows the origin of that force. And that is a good thing. Otherwise, the origin of all relationships would turn out to be physical!
Do You Drink?
April 18, 2002
When I ask undergraduate students at UIC why they are reluctant to major in physics, a typical answer I get is that physics is hard. So let me tell you the story of my life. Don’t be frightened; it will only take a few minutes. When I first arrived in North America as a graduate student from India many years ago (more than I care to remember), a fellow student, Andy (otherwise known as Arjun Kumar) took me to the faculty club. There he asked me, “Do you drink?” That hurt my pride. Do I drink? What a question! Does the Pope go to church? Of course I drink, I have been drinking all my life. And then I took my first sip of this yellowish liquid, and I shot it straight back in his face. “Andy, they have mixed something in this drink; it is not sweet and it tastes so mediciny!” Now for those of you who have never drunk beer, I can tell you that on that day, horse’s stuff would have tasted just as good, if not better!
This stuff was absolutely impossible to swallow. But now many years later, I cannot imagine life without a beer. And so it is with Physics, and in fact with any discipline including sports or riding a bike. What is the transformation? There is always a period of investment before you can enjoy the fruits. When I first started to learn how to play tennis, I hit my leg more often than I hit the ball. Remember, when your parents first tried to teach you how to ride a bike (I mean a bicycle and not a tricycle) and you found it hard to balance, much to the frustration of yourself and your parents. And then suddenly, one day, the bike does not fall to the left or to the right; the tennis ball goes to the other side of the net, and even the beer tastes good. With your bike, you can now make swooping motions and then take it right back in the direction you want it to go. To this day, I do not know how anyone can ride a bike; it’s hard!
Do not let irrational fears keep you from enjoying the pleasures of physics. The pleasure is really immense. Imagine, when you find a solution to a crossword puzzle or succeed in unscrambling letters to get the right word, you feel a certain tingle in your spine. That is your “Eureka” moment! Now, multiply that thrill by at least a million times, and that is how physicists feel when they find a solution to a scientific problem. Those are their personal highs, and that is why they are hunched over their workbenches day-in and day-out, waiting for their Eureka moments.
There are things you must do for your soul. Although, many discoveries in physics ultimately serve humanity in the form of products, not everything should be judged by its utility. When you read a good book, look at a fine painting, listen to some nice music, or even enjoy a funny joke, you are not thinking of any utilitarian aspects. Some fundamental scientific research falls in this class and must be pursued solely for its intrinsic value. In 1969, Robert Wilson, the first director of Fermilab, the largest US particle-physics facility, was asked by Congress what his new laboratory would contribute to America’s defense. He replied: “This new knowledge has everything to do with honor and country. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country. But it helps make it worth defending.”