A Research Student




          I was relaxed and in the best of moods after finding out the result of my candidacy examination.  In a few days I was leaving on my camping trip and was happily and busily working out the itinerary of the two weeks road journey. I had planned to find my research guide on returning from the trip. But I ran into Giovanni Venturi who was doing his Ph.D. with Professor Reinhard Oehme. He told me, “Amar, if you think professors will wait for you to call on them just because you have cleared the candidacy in group A, you are mistaken. Others who have cleared the candidacy with you will have signed up with them by the time you return from your trip.” With this warning I was left with no choice but to meet the professors to identify my research guide. Our profiles had already been circulated by the Graduate Students Advisor with the faculty members. I literally had to shop around for my research guide.


      I knocked upon the closed doors of Professor Oehme’s office. I heard a loud shout from deep inside, “Enter.” He was sitting on his work table at the end of a long room. As soon as I introduced myself he spoke nonstop for thirty minutes on the excitement of doing research in elementary particle physics. He ended his monologue by pointing to a table at the opposite end of his room. I saw a pile of papers on that table. Professor Oehme said, “These are preprints of research work I received in the last week. Ninety percent of them are most likely bad physics and I am not going to read them.” He then pulled out some papers and said, “You read them and then meet me. I will decide after interviewing you if I can accept you as my student.” I told him that I was going on vacation.  He insisted I should find time to read the papers he was giving me. He was a German and very formal. The thought of spending next four years with him unsettled me.


      I next knocked on the door of Professor Peter Freund. He had kept the windows of his room opened. It was freezing cold inside. He was smelling of strong perfume. He knew me because he was one of my examiners in the candidacy examination. Before I could say anything he lectured me  for forty-five minutes on some open problems in elementary particle physics. He picked out some research papers from a pile. He started marking ‘R’ and ‘B’ on the papers. I asked him what the ‘R’ and ‘B’ markings meant. He said, “The R and B markings indicate whether the paper is to be read or be browsed.” I protested and told him, “I am going on vacation to see the Grand Canyon.” Without blinking he said, “You will have time on hand waiting for ski-lifts which you can use for reading the papers I am giving you.”


      On the camping trip, we would be tired and hungry by the evening each day. The camping sites were desolate because except for us no sensible visitor to the national parks thought of spending nights in subzero temperatures in the open. We had brought with us canned food and a camping stove. The contents of the cans could at best be  warmed and not heated because we were camping out in the open in the middle of the winter and our pan was losing heat more rapidly than receiving heat from the small stove. With my friends I ate warmed canned food which was mainly of meat preparations. I neither complained of the taste nor faced the issue of digesting what I ate. I had effectively changed my food habits. I now liked the charcoal broiled steak and pastrami sandwiches.  We returned from our camping trip with lifelong memories of the Bandelier  National Monument, the Painted Desert,   the Meteor Crater, Saguaro Cacti forests and the Taliesin West  by Frank Lloyd Wright in Tucson. The Taliesin East  by Frank Lloyd Wright was in the campus of the University of Chicago. Of course, the climax of the trip was the visit to the Grand Canyon.



      On my return to Chicago I decided to explore with some more professors my research options. It was the first or-second week of January 1966. I went to see Professor Simpson in the Laboratory for Space Research and Astrophysics. When I entered his office he looked at me and said, “The death of Dr. Homi Bhabha in the plane crash in the Swiss Alps is a bigger loss for your country than  the death of your Prime Minister Shastri.” He knew Dr. Bhabha well as both physicists worked in the field of cosmic rays. After preliminaries he offered to accept me on trial basis for six months. He said you can think of my offer and if you are ready to work on my terms you may contact me again. Next to Professor Simpson’s office was that of Professor S. Chandrasekhar. I was not confident of coming up to his expectations from me. I felt intimidated in his presence. I decided not to contact him. I met Professor Ricardo Levi-Setti. He worked in the field of experimental nuclear physics. He showed me a pile of bubble chamber photographs. He said, “I spend my time   in analysing charged particle tracks from the bubble chamber pictures and  work out their kinematics. It is a boring piece of work. Think carefully before you decide to work with me.” 


      I realised that all these professors were no different from each other. I did not have much choice from among them as they were all the same. My broad area of research would have to be the same as that of my guide. I decided to work with Professor Freund for my Ph.D. research. Professor S. Chandrasekhar ensured that he was on my Ph.D. committee and made himself responsible for the assessment of my research progress including making recommendations to   the University to award the Ph.D. degree to me.


      I was allotted a study table in the Fermi Institute in a room  I shared with three other Ph.D.  students, who, like me, were doing research in elementary particle physics. Edmond Schonberg was from my batch and had also joined Professor Peter Freund. Nelson was senior to me. George Gounaris was a student of Professor J. J. Sakurai. We spent most of our time on the blackboard in our room discussing physics problems faced by any one of us. Much of our physics education occurred in discussing physics with each other as the professors were not easily accessible. However, I spent my Tuesday mornings reading the weekly students’ newspaper, The Chicago Maroon.


      Now I had no problem regarding meals. Milton, George and Bob took me out to restaurants to try different types of cuisines. When I was a child I was forced to take cod-liver oil by my father.  I did not like its smell and associated fish with foul smell. The changed diet resulted in my gaining weight.   Without exception and with time all visitors to the US from India put on weight eating the American food.


      Edmond Schonberg was of French origin. His parents had settled in Peru. He was a good student and had straight ‘As’ in all his courses. I have mentioned earlier that Edmond Schonberg, Milton and I were ranked in group ‘A’ by the candidacy examination committee.  Edmond Schoenberg and I worked together on several research problems. Professor Freund encouraged us to publish our joint research work. We published several joint papers.


      I now took an interest in reading books other than those of physics.  Each week I bought a book from the University Bookstore and read it over the weekend. The authors I read with interest were Mark Twain, James Thurber, Hemingway, Thomas Mann, Herman Hesse, Saul Bellow, van  Buitenen,  A. K. Ramanujan, and Edgar Allen Poe. I signed up for the Doc Films run by the students. In the evenings films were screened in the Ida Noyes Hall. The Doc Films screened art films   of famous contemporary Directors and actors. I remember seeing the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, Ingmar Bergman and Humphrey Bogart.


      I wanted to improve my mobility. I decided to buy an old car but first I had to learn driving. My roommate George had a car but was not inclined to teach me how to drive. Milton offered to teach me driving. We borrowed George’s Ford Mustang and took it to the McCormick Place parking lot. After I had driven the car in the parking lot for fifteen minutes Milton said that I needed to learn to drive on the city roads and not inside a parking lot. As a part of my driving lessons Milton made me drive on the city roads after pulling out of the parking lot. After three days of driving lessons Milton declared that I was ready to take my driving test. We took the Ford Mustang for the driving test. Completing the preliminaries of the driving test was easy. The inspector asked me to take the driving test. When I stepped out with the inspector I discovered that the car had run  out of gas. Milton ran with a jerrycan to get a gallon of petrol. The driving test inspector was amused by our predicament. I took the driving test as per the directions of the inspector. When the test was over the inspector smiled and remarked that I needed practice. I pointed out the catch 22 situation that in order to practice driving I needed to have a car of my own and I can own a car only if I have a driving licence. He smiled and said, “I am issuing you the driving licence but you should be careful when you are on the road.” I now held the driving licence of the Illinois State.


      I went to the University bookstore to look for announcements of used cars on sale, and saw on the noticeboard a card announcing the sale of a 1961 model Ford Falcon with automatic transmission for $375. I contacted the owner. He turned out to be a professor in the University of Chicago living in Hyde Park. He asked me to come to his house to see the car. When he saw me he realised I was a foreign student and his approach towards me became cautious. He pointed out that he was selling his car because a big dog had recently been added to the family and so he had bought a bigger car. He said, “He would give me a set of new snow tyres with the car but the sale was under the condition 'as is where is’. If I were to decide to buy his car and take it with me I could not return to him with complaints of defects in it.” I paid him the price he had asked and drove home my first car.


      Dr. Ram Karan Singh had come with his family for a two-year consultancy assignment to Gary, Indiana. He asked me to spend a weekend with him. Gary, Indiana, was about 30 miles from my apartment. The drive to Gary involved travelling part of the way on the expressway. I reached safely and developed confidence in my driving ability. I made many long distance trips in my car. I liked camping vacations and drove Bob Sandling and one other friend who was a keen fisherman  to the Lake District in  Northern Wisconsin.


      Once I even drove overnight from Chicago to Baltimore.  Rajjo Chachiji had come with Shamnath Chachaji from Calcutta. Chachaji was admitted in Johns Hopkins Hospital for a major surgery.  They were shocked when I told them that I drove nonstop to Baltimore from Chicago, a distance of about 800 miles. It was not a wise decision to drive alone long distances. On my return trip I fell asleep momentarily at the wheel. I woke up in time and escaped a fatal accident.


      Along with my research work I cleared the requirement of three compulsory advanced courses, Relativistic Quantum Mechanics, Condensed Matter Physics and Statistical Physics. I was required to undergo a viva voce assessment by my research advisory committee in advanced physics. It was one of the partial fulfilment requirements for the Ph.D. degree. I have written about this event in my tribute to Professor Chandrasekhar. My relationship with Professor Chandrasekhar was complex. I had signed up in the winter quarter for an advanced course on the general theory of relativity taught by Professor Chandrasekhar.  Sometime in the middle of that course there was an unusual heavy snowfall in Chicago. More than 40 inches of snow fell in 24 hours. My car was covered under a mound of snow. I thought that on that day Chandra may not be able to take his class as movement of cars was not possible on the snow covered roads. I decided to go to the Point on the Lakeshore for photographing icicles.  I was on my way to the Lakeshore and was least expecting to see Chandra face to face. But he saw me. He was walking to the Department  to take his class fully protected for the weather as he was wearing full gumboots and was all wrapped up in an overcoat and  a skull cap  covering his head and ears. Next day I received a message to see him. When I met him he said to me, “I suggest you drop the course.”  There was no talking back to Chandrasekhar I dropped the course! His argument was that if he could walk in adverse weather conditions to teach his class then his students, if they were keen to learn, also had to attend it even if it meant they had to plough through snow to get there.


      The professors in the High Energy Physics group maintained a barge-pole distance from their students. It was literally true as in the seminar room of the high energy group the students were seated more than six feet behind the long table used by the professors. Whenever any one of us asked a question they all turned their heads in unison to locate the source of noise. We decided to get even with them. Professor Nambu’s secretary mentioned to us his birthday. We decided to celebrate it. We met all the professors in the group to come to the seminar room and help us in making the event a big surprise. Professor Nambu’s secretary arranged a birthday cake and a pot of coffee. When Professor Nambu entered we  shouted on top of our voice ‘for he  is a jolly good fellow’ and sang, “Happy Birthday Professor Nambu.” I recall Professor Gregor Wentzel, who was the oldest professor in the group, asking Professor Nambu, “How old are you today, Professor Nambu?” Professor Nambu became visibly upset. Our innocent prank cost his secretary her job.


      One day I played a practical joke on Nelson. He and I were alone in the lab. I told Nelson, “I have been hiding a fact from him. I can disclose it if it will not come in the way of our friendship.” Nelson asked me to speak out what I had held from him so far. I told Nelson, “I am an untouchable from India.” Nelson thought for a while and came and embraced me. He said, “I am a broadminded American. I will not let your caste come in the way of our friendship.” But he was disturbed all the same. He went and checked with his friend Khazan Agarwal what I had revealed to him.  I knew Khazan Agarwal from the Ramjas College. Khazan Agarwal told Nelson, “Maheshwari is no untouchable. Even my sister can marry him!” Next morning Nelson was unhappy to see me. He said, “I have checked and found out that you are not an untouchable. Why did you tell this fib   to me?” I apologised and said that I wanted to check whether he was above caste prejudice.


      I continued with the progress in my research work. I published an independent research paper in the Physical Review. It came as a big surprise when Professor Freund told me that I could graduate with a Ph.D. degree based on the work I had already done. I was least prepared for leaving then the University with a Ph.D. degree. I had hardly spent two years in doing research. I told Professor Freund my reservations to his suggestion.  I told him that I was not happy with the research that I had done and wanted to work on a more intellectually satisfying problem.  Moreover I had not planned for what I would do next after leaving the University if I graduated in December 1967. Professor Freund decided to support me  for one more year but   laid the condition that I would have to complete a new research problem within that period.


      I could not now ask Professor Freund to suggest a research problem to me. I was on my own. I did not know how to go about finding a new problem to work on. Professor Weber of the University of Maryland gave a colloquium on detection of the gravitational waves. From the Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics it is easily seen that they contain wave solutions. The wave solutions of electrodynamics are called the electromagnetic waves. Light is an electromagnetic wave. All communications on Earth use electromagnetic waves. Einstein’s equations of gravitation in the general theory of relativity are written in terms of curvature tensor. They also contain wave solutions but these solutions are not so obvious as in the case of Maxwell’s electrodynamics. Professor Weber rewrote the Einstein’s equations in weak field approximation. In this formulation Einstein’s equations become equivalent to a self-interacting massless spin 2 field whose source is the energy momentum-tensor. In this formulation the gravitational waves are as obvious as are the electromagnetic waves from the Maxwell’s equations of electrodynamics. The gravitational waves are hard to detect because their sources are generally weak and only catastrophic events involving massive stellar objects can generate gravitational waves strong enough which Professor Weber could possibly detect in his lab using extremely sensitive detectors. It may be appreciated that the year was 1968 and Einstein’s theory of gravitation was an esoteric subject of study. There was not much progress in its applications to explain observational effects beyond the three basic tests which had been performed in the twenties. In the colloquium an idea came to my mind to formulate a theory of gravitation with self-interacting massive spin 2 field with energy-momentum tensor as the source. I discussed my ideas with Professor Freund the following day. He appreciated what I wanted to do and encouraged me to work on this problem. It was a challenging task as an infinite number of terms had to be found because of self-interaction of the field. I did not know how I would go about solving the problem I had taken up.


      I spent each day doing complicated calculations and at the end of the day returned to my apartment with a feeling of not having made progress in solving the problem. It was winter time and the general effect was of pervading gloom. The stress began to build in me. Weekends became lonely periods difficult to spend. I needed diversion out of my weekly routine to lift up my spirits.  At the end of the weekends I wanted to emerge fresh for beginning a new week.  I felt the need of   female company. I thought it might provide me the outlet I needed for relieving me of my stress.  I did not like to go out with American girls. I found them aggressive and was generally uncomfortable in their company.  Two of my friends Milton and Bob were married. I used to spend my weekends with them. There were not many girls from India in the University of Chicago. Those who were there were older and much older than me. I was reckless in my pursuit of female company. Some of my friends were more reckless than I was. Yavuj Nutku, who was from Turkey, married a woman more than thirty years older than him. I think the person Yavuj married was his music teacher.(Let me mention here that when I met Yavuj in 1977 in Austin he was married to someone his age who knew the Nizam family of Hyderabad settled in Turkey.) Dr. Manohar Lal Jasuja who was with me in the Gwyer Hall worked in the Cook County Hospital in Chicago. He introduced me to an Indian girl. She lived in the North Chicago. The distance to where she lived from the South Chicago where I lived was more than thirty miles. It did not come in my way as I had a car.


      I once travelled with Mr. and Mrs. Chandrasekhar to Cincinnati. Chandra was driving. Mrs Chandrasekhar treated Chandra’s students like her sons. When Chandra and his students were attending the conference Mrs Chandrasekhar took out with her wives of Chandra’s students. I was amused when Mrs Chandrasekhar said, “I would have liked the wives of Chandra’s students to be like my daughters-in-law and not my sisters!”


      I used to observe that some of my fellow research students who were from Europe used to slip away to visit home for two-three weeks without being missed.  We rarely saw our professors. Professor Freund was spending the summer of 1968 at the newly created International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste, Italy. Bob’s professor was a famous English mathematician who held dual positions in Cambridge and Chicago. Bob and Judy had moved to Cambridge.


      I had reached a dead end in my research problem.  I was moving in circles without making progress. I was also homesick as I had not been to India since I left it in 1964. I decided to take a break from my research work and spend my summer in Europe followed by a visit to India. I planned to spend a week with Bob and Judy in Cambridge. I wanted to visit Venice, spend some time in Trieste with Professor Freund, and then visit Greece. I also included Istanbul in my itinerary because of my Turkey connection with Yavuj Nutku. I wanted to spend three weeks in Delhi as Pitaji was recently posted there after his transfer from Lucknow.


      Although I was working with Professor Freund I was supported from the National Science Foundation (NSF) research grant of Professor Nambu. I had not informed Professor Nambu of my plans for getting away from the lab for the summer. My life was open and all my friends knew what I had planned to do. One day I found myself sharing the elevator with Professor Nambu. Professor Nambu said, “Amar, Are you going to India?”  I fumbled and said, “Yes, but I will also spend sometime with Professor Freund in Trieste.” He said, “Amar, we will support you here.” All my stress melted away.


      The girl I was seeing in the North Chicago disclosed to me that she was a Christian and was from Karwar, a coastal town in Karnataka. She wanted me to visit her parents during my India visit. I had no such intentions. The girl from the University of Chicago I was seeing was more prudent than I was. She saw the futility of our relationship and discouraged me from pursuing her. My friends in the University were aware of my personal life and spread a  rumour that I was going to India to get married.


      Bob and Judy took me on a one week visit of England and Scotland. We saw the cathedrals of Lincoln and York, crossed  Hadrian’s wall, climbed up  King Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh and went up  to Inverness in North  Scotland.  We drove past Loch Ness and crossed to the Isle of Skye. On returning to Cambridge I flew to Venice. I fell in love with the city of Venice on reaching the San Marco Plaza. At Trieste I met Professor Freund. He had arranged accommodation for me in a city hotel. After spending the day with him at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics I checked into the hotel where accommodation had been booked for me. What I am going to write next will be an attempt in describing in words a transcendental experience.


      As soon as I settled down in my room in the hotel I saw in a flash a glimpse of the solution of the problem I was working on for the past five months. I did not see the solution but developed a feeling that I knew now how to solve the problem I had been grappling with. I had guessed correctly the compact form of the Lagrangian of the self-interacting massive spin 2 field whose source was the energy-momentum tensor. It contained   infinite number of terms but could be written in a closed form. I had to show that it was the Lagrangian I was looking for.  I took  out blank sheets and my pen. I worked continuously for four to five hours. When I realised that I had completely worked out the solution I went to sleep.


      The following morning I met Professor Freund with my solution. He could not understand what I was telling him but made photocopies of my worksheets. He told me that he would write to me at my address in India after verifying for himself my solution.


      I will try to explain the mental processes I had undergone that night through a metaphor. Anyone who has extracted cream by churning milk knows that mere act of churning for a long time does not bring out the cream hidden in the milk. Right conditions and sufficient churning are both essential for extracting the cream out of the milk. Cream or the butter appears all of a sudden from the milk and not continuously. For creating the right conditions either hot or cold water is added to the milk as may be required. In my case  I had  churned my mind for five months but the critical conditions for the solution to emerge  were met  when  it was relaxed by my visits to Scotland and  Venice.


      In the evening Professor Freund took me out for a lavish Italian meal. I enjoyed the meal. At the end of the meal a fish was brought on a trolley to our table. I declined to eat the fish. I was told by the Maitre d’hotel that it was the best part of the meal and I should try it. I tried the piece of fish served to me in that restaurant. I cannot describe in words the delicious taste I experienced in eating fish that evening. 


      I travelled to Athens by a flight from Venice. I was impressed by the Parthenon and the marble ruins on the hill overlooking the Athens. I saw a programme of Greek folk dances from an amphitheatre facing the Parthenon followed by a sound and light show. I made a day trip to Delphi. I then went on a three-day cruise to Mykonos and made a short trip to Delos. After visiting Greece I flew to Istanbul. From there I flew to Delhi. On reaching Delhi I was met by my extended family. I spent relaxed three weeks with my parents, brothers and sisters. Professor Freund’s letter was waiting for me. He confirmed that my solution was correct and some details remained to be worked out which I could do on my return to Chicago. It made me happy in anticipation of getting my Ph.D. degree based on the research work I felt  proud to have carried out.


      I spent a day with Bob and Judy in Cambridge before taking my flight for Chicago from London. Judy gave me a book titled ‘Indian Cooking by Mrs. Balbir Singh’. I carried that book in my hands because I had left my luggage in the cloakroom at the London airport on my arrival from Delhi and had no time to keep the book in it when I picked it for boarding my flight to Chicago.


      My flight arrived in Chicago late in the evening. My friends Sushil, Satish and K. Chandrasekhar were convinced that theywouldfind me with my wife when I landed in Chicago. Although they did not have a personal transport yet they reached O’Hare airport using public transport for receiving me. They were most disappointed when I stepped out of the plane holding in my hands ‘Indian Cooking by Mrs. Balbir Singh!’



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