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My memories of Jamal Nazrul Islam

by Belal E Baaquie

Dr Jamal Nazrul IslamDr Jamal Nazrul Islam

JAMAL Nazrul Islam, professor of physics, passed away on March 16 at the age of 74. His demise is a great loss to the world of physics and to Bangladesh. A review of his scientific works is appropriate for specialised publications. I would instead like to record my personal and professional interactions with JN Islam spanning a period of over fifty years.
JN Islam was my youngest maternal uncle; as long as I can remember, he was held in awe by all of our extended family, especially his nieces and nephews, because of his academic brilliance. His schooling results were so outstanding that he was admitted to Cambridge University; he completed his BSc, MSc and PhD degrees by 1968 and ScD (Doctor of Science) in 1982, all from Trinity College, Cambridge University. He went on to make major contributions to the field of mathematical physics, specialising in the theory of gravitation and of mathematical cosmology.
My first memory of JN Islam is in 1958 when he was transiting in Karachi, where my father was posted, en route to Cambridge. I was struck by the fact that one could go to such a famous university even if one is from a distant place such as Chittagong. I think this was probably the first time I had the thought that it does not matter if one is from a developed or developing country, but rather one could be amongst the best in the world if one aspired for this and had the ability to support this aspiration.
The next memory I have of JN Islam is in 1960. Our family was visiting Chittagong and JN Islam had just gotten married to Ms Suraiya in Kolkata and they came to the family home in Chittagong. JN Islam was carrying a book entitled Quantum Electrodynamics by Julian Schwinger. I remember being mystified by the complex symbols in the book and kept badgering him to explain to me what was in the book. I remember him laughing — in the particular manner he always did — and telling me that this was the field he was studying. It was only many years later, around 1974 when I was doing my PhD in theoretical physics, that I read the book: it contained many landmark papers of quantum field theory, which is the theoretical and mathematical foundation of contemporary physics. On reflection, I realised that JN Islam was at the cutting edge of physics from the very start of his career in physics.
On one of JN Islam’s visits to Bangladesh, in 1969, I brought out a book Classical Mechanics by H Goldstein — a graduate physics textbook — and asked him to help me solve some of its most intractable exercises. Sitting at a dining table in the midst of family members who had come to see him, JN Islam looked at the problem and then proceeded to solve it effortlessly — much to my amazement. I was greatly inspired by the examples of JN Islam — and of my father who is an MSc in physics — in choosing physics as my career.
I again met JN Islam in 1971; I was an undergraduate at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in the US and JN Islam was visiting the Caltech Gravitation group. We had a delightful one year of overlap and it was also the time of the Bangladesh liberation war. I had organized a concert at Caltech in 1971 with Ustad Akbar Ali Khan, the sarod maestro, being the main performer to support the Liberation War; JN Islam was one of the enthusiastic supporters. It was only recently, in January of 2013, that he informed me (I did not know it until then) that the Max Delbruck, Nobel laureate in biology, had attended the concert.
While at Caltech, I had the privilege of having an exclusive dinner at JN Islam’s residence with Subramaniam Chandrashekar, Nobel laureate in physics. During the dinner, Professor Chandrashekar jokingly mentioned that people retire at 60 but he, in contrast, was embarking on a new field of research, namely studying the mathematical properties of black holes. [His study later culminated in a monumental book on the subject.] This event left a deep impression on me since I felt that one should never ‘retire’ ones power to think but, instead, should constantly seek new problems till one’s last days.
I used to visit the Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics at Trieste, Italy, regularly starting in 1978, the year that I had returned to Bangladesh from the US. In 1980, my visit overlapped with JN Islam, who was visiting from University College, London. I had the privilege and pleasure of being invited to an exclusive dinner at JN Islam’s residence that he was hosting for Professor Salam, Nobel laureate in physics, and his English wife.
During the discussion on various subjects, the topic dear to both JN Islam and Professor Salam, namely of engendering and developing fundamental science in Third World countries, was a recurrent theme; both of them were completely convinced that no lasting progress could be made in Third World countries without basic science. Their discussion was of lasting significance since JN Islam carried out this view with his own actions.
JN Islam resigned from City University, London and returned to Bangladesh in 1984, the same year that I took up a position in the National University of Singapore. JN Islam established the Research Centre for Mathematical and Physical Sciences, Chittagong University in 1985 with the strong support of Professor Salam. The inaugural meeting appropriately had Professor Abdus Salam as chief guest. Present at the meeting were Roger Penrose and Huzihiro Araki, both renowned mathematical physicists. The meeting was especially memorable for me because two of JN Islam’s nephews who are physicists, namely Munawar Karim and myself, attended the inaugural meeting.
I subsequently attended many meetings at the centre and admired the energy and vigour with which JN Islam worked tirelessly to put the centre and Bangladesh on the map of international science.
In 1989 I was invited to a conference on physics at Islamabad that JN Islam was also attending. I was impressed by the respect and collegiality that he was accorded by the other physicists at the meeting. Salman Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses was being protested in various cities in Pakistan. I asked him what were his views; he was quite categorical in stating that although he firmly believed in the freedom of speech he was opposed to any form of writing that ridiculed the religious beliefs of people.
I continued to meet JN Islam regularly during the next twenty years; my own research work during this period had branched out from theoretical physics to applying the mathematics of quantum mechanics to problems in finance and economics. He strongly encouraged and supported my decision to broaden my field of research and — on his invitation — I gave a number of talks on my work at his centre. Much to my delight, I found that JN Islam had also extended his research interest to the social sciences and he went on to write a book on the subject entitled Introduction to Mathematical Economics and Social Choice.
On one of his trips to Cambridge University in 2005, he went to the University Bookstore and told me that he had seen two of my books published by the Cambridge University Press next to the books he had published with the same publisher. He remarked with great pride and affection that he was indeed happy to see that his nephew was joining ranks with him in publishing world class intellectual products. JN Islam always had generous praise and wholehearted support for all those around him and I thanked him for his kind words.
For the last few years I have been in engaged in popularising fundamental science and in this context I once discussed Einstein’s theory of gravitation with JN Islam. The mathematical formulation of gravitation is known to most theorists but this is not accessible to the public. So, I asked him how one could intuitively explain the physical content of Einstein’s gravity without any equations.
He explained that gravity is the manifestation of the fact that every point of space-time has a clock that runs at its own speed and a measuring scale with its own measure for length. One has to have a consistent collection of clocks and scales at different points of space-time so that as one moves from point to point the rates and measures for clocks and scales also must change smoothly. One way of achieving this is by comparing the clocks and scales for all possible pairs of space-time points and demanding consistency; but achieving a consistent result would, indeed, be almost impossible.
What Einstein did, instead, was to encode the behaviour of the clocks and scales — at all the different space-time points — in a mathematical entity called the metric tensor; in a more mathematical language, the metric tensor determines the Riemannian geometry of a given space-time. Einstein then wrote down a set of equations whose solution is the said metric tensor. In this manner, in one giant step, Einstein solved the problem of consistently assigning clocks and scales that have a different measure for every point of space-time.
I have found that this intuitive explanation of geometry is one of the best ways to understand and teach the mathematics and physics of curved space-time.
On a more technical level, I was once studying the exact solution of Einstein’s equation — a branch of physics that was one of the specialisations of JN Islam — for the case of a spinning black hole. Given the complexity of Einstein’s equations I was rather puzzled and surprised at how such an exact solution could have been found in the first place. In response to my query, JN Islam pointed out that to obtain the exact solution, the metric tensor was intuitively postulated to have a very simple form — assuming which one can easily solve the formidably complicated Einstein equations and, in doing so, verify the postulate as well.
Needless to say, I was always impressed and enlightened by the explanations given by JN Islam. He had the ability to describe the most complex and abstruse concepts in theoretical physics in an intuitive manner that got to the root of the concept. The advice he gave me in solving apparently intractable problems was to sit and ‘Stare at the equation’ and not let the equations be dropped from your mind. I found his advice to be invaluable in my own work.
JN Islam had a powerful mathematical mind that could hold, operate on and manipulate highly complex equations with stamina and determination. His forte was his ability to do very long and difficult calculations that went on for pages and pages. His single author books Rotating Fields in General Relativity and An Introduction to Mathematical Cosmology are a testament to his mathematical prowess.
In 2010 I gave a talk on a book that I had co-authored on popular science called Exploring Integrated Science at the Independent University of Bangladesh. JN Islam attended the talk together with Professor Shamsher Ali. At the end of the talk, JN Islam stated quite emphatically that the popularisation of science was essential for ensuring society’s continued support — a support that is indispensable for sustaining the basic sciences. It is worthwhile to note that JN Islam himself had published a pioneering book, The Ultimate Fate of the Universe in 1983, that popularised the findings of cosmology and made otherwise arcane ideas of science accessible to the public at large.
The last time I had the privilege of meeting JN Islam was at a talk I gave in Dhaka in January 2013 on the discovery of the Higgs boson. He was scheduled to leave for Chittagong but delayed his departure just to attend my talk, a gesture that reflected his support for science as well as his continuing encouragement to me. It was at the end of the talk that he recalled the earlier mentioned function that I had organised at Caltech in 1971 — a good 42 years ago.
JN Islam achieved great heights of scientific knowledge and was also an exemplar of a person dedicated to bringing the light of science to the developing countries of the Third World. He could have stayed in the West and achieved even greater heights of scientific achievement, but instead chose the more difficult but exalted path of sacrificing his personal advancement for the scientific advancement of Bangladesh as a country and as a nation.
The most appropriate way to honour, respect and treasure the life of JN Islam is to understand and realise the values and principles that he upheld and to continue the worthy cause of inspiring future generations to take up the study and advancement of the fundamental sciences in the Third World, and in Bangladesh in particular.

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