Wrap Up of Chicago Stay
My decision to go on summer vacation was to get out of the cul-de-sac I had reached in my research work. Quite unexpectedly during the vacation, I had been able to solve the problem I was struggling with.I returned relaxed from the summer trip. I had moved into Bob and Judy’s apartment as they had vacated it to go to Cambridge. It was in Hyde Park, walking distance from the Fermi Institute. I now had time on hand to take part in both campus and off-campus activities. I became the Secretary of the Indian Students Association of the University of Chicago. On behalf of the Indian Students Association I was privileged to organise the visit of Shri and Smt. Jayaprakash Narayan. Shri Jayaprakash Narayan was a well-known Indian independence activist and social reformer. I arranged their accommodation in the International House. He met the students from India. I carry the impression that during his interaction with us he kept a low profile. His wife appeared much older than him. I could not foresee then that he would play the focal point of the movement to oppose Mrs. Indira Gandhi in the mid seventies.
I did not watch TV. I did not have a TV. Initially I had an FM radio which I replaced by a music system consisting of a record player, a tuner and a set of good speakers. I listened to the radio broadcasts of WFMT 98.7 FM. It aired round-the-clock classical music, and two, weekly, special programs I tried not to miss: one was the radio talk show by Studs Terkel aired every Wednesday at 10:30 pm and the other was the Midnight Special, a programme of folk music and humour, also aired at 10:30 pm but on Saturdays. Whenever I got a chance to watch TV I would watch the NBC Huntley-Brinkley Report, an evening news report given by the team of TV news journalists, Chet Huntley and David Brinkley. Another TV programme which I liked whenever I got a chance to see was Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show. From time to time famous Indian classical music maestros visited the University of Chicago. Their concerts were held in the Mandel Hall of the University. I recall having heard live the music of Pandit Ravi Shankar, Allah Rakha and M. S. Subbulakshmi among other well known artists from India when they performed in the University of Chicago.
The students in the University then were disturbed by the war in Vietnam. They actively supported the non-violent movement of Dr. Martin Luther King. Dr. King and Rev. Jesse Jackson visited South Chicago not too far from the campus of the University. I went with my friends to listen to Dr. Martin Luther King and Rev. Jesse Jackson. It was a new experience for me. The assembled people sang hymns and Afro-American gospels while waiting for the arrival of Dr. King. He was a powerful speaker. His oration was interrupted frequently by the gathering chorusing phrases like ‘Yes Sir! True Sir!’ I was moved by what I witnessed in these gatherings held inside a church somewhere near the 63rd Street in South Chicago. I could visualise from Dr. King’s meetings similar meetings held by Gandhi during the independence movement of India. Many of my friends took part in the peace march in the Gage Park area of Chicago led by Dr. Martin Luther King. Gage Park was a lower middle class locality in South-West Chicago, and its residents were working class European immigrants. They were opposed to blacks moving in with them as their neighbours. A student from the University whom I knew well was hit by a stone in his eye in the Gage Park march. But the reaction of the participants in the peace march to violence against them was nonviolent and peaceful.
I cannot forget an act of vandalism I witnessed on the day Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was about 50 feet from my apartment as I stepped out of my car. I saw a group of black boys turning turtle a convertible car. I froze where I was as I anticipated I would be attacked next. Ray’s parents were driving to Chicago on that day. They had reached outskirts of Chicago when they heard on the car radio the news of Dr. King’s assassination. I answered the phone in the apartment as they were trying to contact Ray. I advised them to switch on the headlights of their car as a mark of respect to Dr. King.
The University of Chicago was surrounded by black ghettoes on three sides; on its fourth side was the affluent Lakefront bordering Lake Michigan. The student community felt disturbed by the lack of impact of the University on its immediate neighbourhood. I heard a student pointing out that it is more probable to find in the University a student from Nepal than one from South Side Chicago. Many of my friends spent their evenings in the Ida Noyes Hall teaching black students from the neighbourhood. Once walking with Bob by the Rockefeller Chapel we saw a black kid stealing a chained bike. My reaction was to intervene. Bob said, “The kid needs the bike and let him have it.” I said, “It is stealing and needs to be reported to the campus police.” Bob said, “They are pigs.” I came across many similar incidents of act of softness shown by the students to boys from the neighbourhood caught committing petty crime. It made me sensitive to socially deprived sections of the society.
I moved into Judy’s father’s apartment when the lease of my apartment ended. Judy’s father Buck Harris was in his mid seventies and lived by himself. His apartment was in Hyde Park. I did not take meals with him. But I could not leave the apartment before answering his daily greeting, “Amar, have you taken your orange juice? Coffee pot is on the table.” Jiji had given me in a glass jar garam masala. One day Buck while cleaning my room saw the jar and threw it away. When I met him, he told me, “Amar, I threw away your jar of stale coffee!” Sudhendu Rai Chaudhury, my friend from the University of Delhi and a fellow resident of Gwyer Hall, came to Chicago for a visit. Buck asked me to invite my friend for dinner. He cooked my favourite dish beef steak and baked potatoes. I did not know whether Sudhendu ate beef. He did not say anything to me then. Some years later Sudhendu and I became colleagues at the University in Simla. I may have mentioned to a gathering of friends that I was a vegetarian. Sudhendu shouted at me, “You liar!”
I had to plan what I wanted to do after leaving the University of Chicago. I was as uncomfortable with the American high energy physics community as I was with the American girls. The pressure on the high energy physics community was to work fast on fashionable problems as though everyone was in a race to publish. High energy physics was a difficult area of research as nobody knew how to handle strong nuclear forces. There were occasional flashes of brilliant ideas which appeared as pathbreaking and were explored from different perspectives. I did not like working on ideas which were the talk of the town. To give an example I recall when the Veneziano model came to the notice of the community of the high energy physicists it turned into a bandwagon. I was reluctant to join it. Similar excitement was created when it was shown that the string model contained in it the essential features of the Veneziano model. I wanted to work at a relaxed pace without being in competition. I was advised to apply for postdoctoral position to some American Universities. But I had different plans.
I wanted to go to Japan. May be Akira Kurosawa’s films had created a romantic picture of Japan in my mind. I went to Professor Nambu. I told him that I would like to go to the University of Tokyo. He thought for a while and said, “Amar, there are no positions for foreigners in Japanese universities.” But I was insistent. I had met Professor Miyazawa during his visit to the Fermi Institute. Professor Nambu said, “I will contact Miyazawa and explore the possibility.” Professor Miyazawa’s first reaction was the same as that of Professor Nambu. However, Professor Miyazawa told Professor Nambu, “There is a remote possibility for me to obtain a grant from the Japan Society for Promotion of Science (JSPT) for inviting Amar to the University of Tokyo as a visiting scientist. I will have to apply for it and so send me Amar’s resume. But do not raise his hope.” I gave my resume to Professor Nambu.
I recall an interesting story. Professors would give drafts of their recommendation letter for each student to the Group’s secretary. She would type out the fair letter for the concerned student, obtain the professor’s signature and despatch it. She was amused to note that in one letter which was being sent for me to an alumnus of the University of Chicago I was ranked higher than him. She got the letter changed in time from the concerned professor before it was despatched. She could not restrain herself in pointing out to me that had she not checked that howler in the letter I would have been rejected outright by the institution where that letter was being sent.
The Group’s secretary pointed out that now bound copies of dissertations were to be submitted by candidates to be maintained for record in the University archives. There was no requirement of a formal dissertation so far. After conducting a viva voce examinationthe Committee sent its recommendation to the Dean of the Physical Science Division for the award of Ph.D. degree by the University to the candidate. I was in a dilemma as no matter how best I tried I would not be able to write a dissertation of even 20 pages. Moreover getting those twenty pages bound in hard cover with a printed top would be another challenge. I could not begin my dissertation with a review of the literature related to my research problem as I had thought of it and no one had worked on it before me. I wrote my dissertation giving the statement of the problem followed by the solution I had worked out. The draft of the dissertation I had prepared was approved by Professor Freund. I gave one copy of the bound dissertation to each member of my Committee and fixed in consultation with them the date and time for my viva voce.
I was asked to make a 15-minute presentation on my work. The committee members would then ask me questions. I made my presentation. The only member of the committee who asked me questions was Professor Chandrasekhar. I had not claimed that my work was an alternative to the Einstein’s theory. But he was aggressive. I got an impression that my work offended him. He did not ask me questions on my research work but asked questions directly on the Einstein’s theory of general relativity. I was unsettled when he asked me to state Birkhoff’s theorem. If he had asked me to tell the time dependence of the spherically symmetric solution of the Einstein’s equation I might have answered it. He commented that what I had done was speculative physics. I was asked to wait outside the seminar room for the committee to deliberate their decision on my research work. I was upset with my performance. Professor Chandrasekhar and other members of the committee came out and congratulated me. When Professor Chandrasekhar saw my unhappy look he asked me to come to his home in the evening.
I went to Professor Chandrasekhar’s home. Both he and Mrs. Chandrasekhar welcomed me. Professor Chandrasekhar said that it was the last time he could exercise his authority on me as my teacher. He said, “Now you have gained the status of my colleague and are no longer my student. I wanted to point out to you that it is more desirable to do standard physics and explain nature than to do speculative physics.” I said, “Chandra, by questioning the conventionally accepted theories we establish their veracity.” He asked me to come again for discussions with him. Mrs. Chandrasekhar made that evening formal and gave me her visitors book to sign.
There is a related story. Professor Freund made a presentation of my work in a Conference in Florida. Perhaps it was at Coral Gables. One popular science magazine journalist picked up the story. A photographer came to my lab to take my picture. Some days later issue of a science magazine appeared with photograph of Professor Freund on the cover and headlines, ‘Einstein under fire’. Buck Harris was disappointed and remarked, “Amar, your photo should have been on the cover instead.”
The next commencement of the University was in June 1969. It was six months away. I was hopeful of continuation of financial support at least till my commencement. I was in for a pleasant surprise. The University of Chicago discouraged inbreeding and expected its graduates to spend couple of years in some other institution before accepting them to join as research associate or as faculty. The High Energy Physics group was happy with my performance and went out of the way to raise my status to an ambiguous level between that of student and research associate. I was now paid double the stipend I was receiving as a research student. Professor Freund asked me to call him Peter and to share the long table with the professors in the seminar room. I declined both privileges. I said, “In this life I can address you only as Professor Freund and I am more at ease sitting with my friends in the back row than with my professors.” I now had money to splurge. I moved out of Judy’s father’s apartment and moved into the penthouse of the International House. There was a room in the tower of the International House which could only be reached using a stairwell from the highest floor connected by elevator. The room had an attached bath with a tub in it and so I did not have to use a common shower.
I received offers of research associateship from some of the US universities. I was not keen to remain in the US after my Chicago stay. One institution wanted an immediate decision from me. I asked Professor Nambu to find out from Professor Miyazawa the likelihood of his proposal inviting me to the University of Tokyo coming through. Professor Nambu looked at his watch and said that it is 3:30 in the morning in Tokyo. He looked at me and decided to wake up Professor Miyazawa. His response was, “Ask Amar to accept the offer on hand. It is uncertain whether he will get the grant from the Japan Society for Promotion of Science.” I decided to accept the offer of the Washington University, St. Louis. I made a trip to St. Louis. Its campus was not Gothic like that of Chicago. It was rich in colours with blooming magnolia. My decision to accept the offer of the Washington University got tilted in its favour as Bob was also moving to Saint Louis University.
Dr. R. K. Singh returned from Gary, Indiana, to India. He was appointed as the Vice-Chancellor of Meerut University. He held me in high regard. He persuaded his University to make me an offer of appointment in its Department of Physics though he neither had my bio-data with him nor had he obtained my consent. I was offered the position of Reader in Physics by Meerut University. He sent me a persuasive letter asking me not to decline the offer impulsively. I was least inclined to return to India then and take up a teaching position. I thanked him for the confidence he had reposed in me and wrote to him that it was crucial for my career to be amidst leading research scientists for some more time and gain research experience. I disappointed him then. But I accepted his similar offer three years later and joined the Himachal Pradesh University in Simla.
I had submitted my research work for publication to the Astrophysical Journal of which Professor Chandrasekhar was the founder editor. I received a message from him to meet him. He had accepted my paper for publication in his journal. He was disappointed with my manuscript. He looked to me reprovingly and pointed out that I did not know how to write English correctly. I had not punctuated equations in the manuscript. He said that words containing equations are sentences and should be written in grammatically correct English. He showed me some of his own manuscripts. They were works of calligraphy. I am talking about 1969 when word processors were not invented and may have existed in science fiction. The secretaries used to change balls in typing machines for entering Greek symbols but mathematical equations were written by hand in manuscripts.
Once, Professor Chandrasekhar asked me to join him for dinner at the International House. He lived in a condominium next to it. After dinner I went with him to his home for coffee. He asked me whether I got nervous about my abilities to do good physics. I said, “Yes, Chandra, I used to get nervous as I suspected my abilities and was not confident whether I would be able to solve the research problem I decided to work on. But now having successfully solved it I see no reason to feel nervous.” His immediate response was, “Maheshwari, the day you stop getting nervous about fulfilling your commitment to do good work that will be the day of your scientific death.” His words of wisdom became a pole star for me to navigate my research career without getting lost in the uncharted ocean of knowledge. He told me that he had lived the life of a scientist for thirty years at the University of Chicago. It was intellectually satisfying but difficult. He was successful in his research career and had received honours and recognitions from his peers and institutions. All the same he felt a vacuum in his life as he and his wife had lived in a foreign country far away from their family in India. I told Chandra, “I was keen to return to India but have a lurking fear that there I will get scientifically isolated.” He pointed out, “It is good to be in the proximity of well known colleagues, some of whom may be intellectually brighter than you are. But ultimately you are on your own and the best help you receive is from your students.” He continued, “All my research papers have been published as a single author or at best jointly with my students. I have published only one paper jointly with a colleague and that was with Enrico Fermi.” He concluded the evening by narrating a lighter incident. He had gone to see Enrico Fermi who was critically ill. When Fermi saw Chandra he said to him, “Chandra, why do you look so sad. I will be born an elephant in the next life.”
In June 1969 I wore red robes to receive my Ph.D. degree. I felt lonely that day and would have been happy had my parents witnessed my achievement. I had the satisfaction that my friend and research collaborator Edmond Schonberg also received his Ph.D. degree that day. I do not have many photographs of my Chicago days. But my picture with Edmond Schonberg - with both of us in red robes, hoods and mortarboards - I have treasured. I have kept it as a reminder of my Chicago days. On July 20, 1969, with my friend Ross Amman and his wife I saw the live telecast of the momentous event of the moon landing by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin.
Before the summer was over I received communication from Professor Miyazawa that I could spend a year as a visiting scientist in the University of Tokyo. A monthly stipend of 72000 yen and my to and fro travel expenses would be paid by the JSPS and furnished accommodation would be given to me by the University of Tokyo. At the exchange rates prevailing then this stipend was equal to US $200 per month. I have never cared for money as long as I could manage my life with it. Moreover, I now had some savings from the higher stipend I had received for nine months from the High Energy Physics group. Pitaji advised me to go to St Louis instead of Tokyo. I have always moved my life by what my heart desired and not by rational wisdom. I decided to go to Japan. I received a communication of displeasure from the Chairman of the Department of Physics, Washington University, St. Louis, for I had dishonoured my contract.
Two days before I left Chicago for Tokyo Shachindra reached Chicago to join Northwestern University. I introduced him to Milton and his wife Suzanne. I passed on to him some 30 odd white un-ironed shirts and the warm jacket I had already used for five years in the Chicago winter. I felt happy that I was leaving the US for good. I had spent exactly five years in Chicago on the day I took my flight for Tokyo.