|Savitribai Phule Pune University||All Models Are False, Some Are Useful|
Professor Padmakar V. Panat succumbed to the complications arising out of an auto-immune disorder that he fought for the last eight months or so, and passed away on January 20, 2009, at a "young" age of 65. It is indeed difficult to come to terms with this tragic loss because he was family to me for more than 18 years.
My first encounter with him occurred during my M.Sc. days in the general laboratory of the Department of Physics, Savitribai Phule Pune University, when all of us 10+2+3=0 (a term coined by him) unsuspecting students were engaged in doing our general lab experiments and he came in for the regular laboratory viva. He asked one of my fellow students (who was trying to measure the (e/m) ratio for an electron) the question "What is charge?" which was subsequently followed by: "What is mass?" This essentially set the tone of our interactions over my masters course: we were sort of scared of him. We only realized later that there was no need to be so scared, and we landed up befriending him.
He gave me a tough time during my Masters project examination, and it was one of his first vivas that prompted me to do a better project. I remember that he taught us a short course on superfluidity based on Landau-Lifshitz and Tilly-and-Tilly. He elaborated on the beautiful phenomenon with the main lambda transition graph and then went on to coherently present the Landau argument for excitation spectrum of the superfluid and then the Feynman argument. At the end of this short course, he also outlined the then-open questions in this beautiful area of condensed matter physics. This, indeed was one of the best short courses in condensed matter physics that I ever took.
It was him who organized the CMT-XX conference in 1995 that brought to Pune leaders of the field such as Eric Cornell and Issac Silvera to talk about Bose condensates, a feat for us students: It was rather rare for us to get to meet eminent leading scientists at the Physics Department otherwise.
He embodied the free and fearless spirit of the fiercely honest academician. He never compromised on academic standards and values, independent of how many students he had to fail in his course. He always insisted that a student won't pass his course unless he or she actually worked very hard and gained sufficient understanding of the subject.
He was politically inclined towards the left, and he would openly express his deep sorrow on the disintegration of the Soviet Union post glasnost and perestroika, a legacy I think he might have inherited from his Ph.D. days at Berkeley during the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Towards the end of his career, he wrote three texts on electrodynamics, classical mechanics and statistical mechanics. He was particularly happy with this outcome, because he believed that he had managed to express his own way of looking at these subjects, especially in the statistical mechanics book. He would say that he always wanted to write a book on quantum mechanics, but he never ventured into that because to him QM was an "adult" subject, and he was not sure if he would be able to present his own coherent point of view on that subject.
He was also a complete Pune-kar, in the sense that he found nothing wrong in buying an ordinary, back-seat ticket for the Sawaai Gandharva music festival and then unhesitatingly sneak forward and occupy a seat for the invited. I remember at one of these music festivals someone saying the following: "Anna, Sawai should also have a session in the afternoon, so that we can get to listen to afternoon ragas ..." I looked around to see who was saying this: On that cold winter night, with roasted peanuts in his hand it was Professor Panat in his woolen monkey cap, making this remark to none other than Pandit Bhimsen Joshi. To this, Bhimsenji nodded in agreement, and both of them then walked away towards the green room.
He had a very eventful career at the university. He got himself into all sorts of trouble due to his outspoken and fearless nature. He was not perfect, and in fact it was these imperfections in him (that he made no bones about) made him very very likeable, remarkable, and unique.
I will miss this teacher of mine in whose office one could walk-in any time, pull out a Noziers-Pines or a Abrikosov-Gorkov-Dzyaloshinsky, and take it away. I will miss this teacher of mine who would spend time resolving your physics questions no matter how silly the questions were, who would make you go to the blackboard at the first possible opportunity and make you show him your argument written out on the board and not in the air. I will miss tea sessions under the tree where everything under the sky could be discussed. I will miss that loud and clear "Are Nandgaonkar" call in the long corridor of the Physics Department...
Ajay Nandgaonkar is an alumnus of the Deparment of Physics, Savitribai Phule Pune University,
now at the Computational Research Laboratories Ltd.
He had a long overlap with Prof. Panat through his Masters and Doctoral days at the department.
January 21, 2009