Field of Science



I first met Sadashiv a.k.a ‘Sam’ Patil in the summer of 2000. The venue was Raman Hall, the auditorium of the Department of Physics at Pune University, and we were listening to a talk by Prof. Yashwant Waghmare, former director of IIT Kanpur, about the history of the Indian atomic energy program. Dr. Waghmare was describing how Homi Bhabha, the architect of modern nuclear India, pioneered nuclear reactor development in the rapidly developing nation in the 50s and 60s. The reactors were given the now well-known incandescent sounding names- Apsara, Cyrus, Pornima, Zerlina etc., each of which curiously is an acronym for a longer technical name. While Dr. Waghmare was describing this phase of the program, a bald man wearing a cap who was sitting in front of me suddenly got up and quipped, “Do some of these names reflect Bhabha’s Zoroastrian origins and inclinations?” Dr. Waghmare, having no idea, said so. Later, one of my friends introduced the man to me as ‘Sam Patil’. In his hand, he held a copy of Robert Jungk’s ‘Brighter than a thousand suns’. This early book is a somewhat idealistic (and even inaccurate in parts) history of the atomic pioneers. But it is a wonderful introduction to the topic for a beginner, and reads like a fast paced, nostalgic novel. The copy showed considerable wear and tear, an indication of having been read several times.

The man was much older than us, about my father’s age, but he insisted that we call him ‘Sam’, a play on his own nickname, 'Sham'. When I introduced myself, Sam asked me, “Are you Bhau Jogalekar’s son by any chance?” I was surprised that this man called my father by his old nickname, which only close relatives and friends use (Bhau literally means brother in Marathi). When I said that I was, he looked happy, and said that he and Bhau Jogalekar went back a long time, to college days. He said that he would meet me again, and asked me to say hello to my father on his behalf. After that, he launched into an enthusiastic espousal of Jungk’s book. Till that time, my knowledge of atomic energy was quite sketchy, and upon his recommendation, I borrowed the book from Prof. Rajeev Pathak (a well-known physicist, teacher and good friend) and was impressed by its heady description of the heydays of physics.

I went home and told my father about Sam. He immediately recognized him; “O Sam, that happy-go-lucky man”. Then he told me about how he came to know him, back in the late 1960s.
Sam came from a well off family that had educational leanings. He secured admission for studying engineering in COEP, but got bored and dropped out after a year. During that time, many bright students were studying the sciences, and Sam decided to study physics, one of his pet interests. Accordingly, he did his BSc. in physics, and enrolled for his MSc. at Pune University. It was there that he met my father who was then doing his M.A. Sam became an occasional part of my father’s group which involved mostly hostelites and out of towners. Some of the members and acquaintances of that group included Anil Gore (Head of the Statistics Department), Naresh Dadhich (director of IUCAA) and Anil Awchat (the writer and social activist). Even though Sam had decided to study advanced physics, he was too much of a dilettante and free bird to pay attention to formal studies. Like before, he dropped out, and took up a carpenter’s profession, a previous hobby in which he could let his creative abilities manifest themselves. In fact, when I asked my father about him, my father pointed out several objects in our home, including a coffee table and an entire large wardrobe lined with rosewood paneling, which Sam had made for us. Sam’s interest in science shone through the furniture; the coffee table is shaped like a Mobius strip, that wondrous mathematical object which quite astonishingly has only one surface.

In spite of his profession as a carpenter, Sam’s real passions were two; the history of physics, and invention. He is the only person I have met in my life who was an actual, full-time, inventor. The problem was that just like many dilettantes, Sam never had the patience or the perspicacity to convert either physics or invention or carpentry into a serious, well-paying profession. Since his father was well off, he did not care much about money; at first because he could get it, and later simply because he had no need for it. Sam gave up all efforts at being well off himself, so that he could indulge in his hobbies. He was interested in science as much as anyone I have ever heard of. To slake his thirst for knowledge, he traveled all over the country, going to conferences, science congresses, and exhibitions, probing, asking questions, meeting and getting to know leading scientists, visiting their institutes, and collecting interesting physics based gadgets that piqued his inventor’s mind. He lived in a small, extremely dilapidated room on BMCC Road, and in that small room, he had dozens of gadgets that he had invented. These gadgets frequently were constructed from the simplest of materials, and used to demonstrate key principles like those of magnetism, mechanics, waves, and optics. I was quite struck by his interests and his inventions the first time I visited his place.

Sam knew that these inventions would not bring him money. As far as I know, the occasional carpentering that he did was his only source of income; perhaps he earned some meagre amount from informal sales of some of his toys. I am quite sure that all the money from this side-venture went into traveling, book buying, and building these toys. For Sam, books and these toys were his life. He used to travel around the city on his ramshackle bicycle, attending every exhibition or competition related to science that was ever organized. I remember meeting him several times; at a neuroscience meeting, at many physics competitions, at the Indian science congress, and at college exhibitions. He was a great and incessant talker (one of his qualities that used to irk my father!), and used to be ready to spend hours talking about his favourite topics with me or anyone else who was interested, quite oblivious to the inconvenience and impatience of his listeners. Inside his small shack, he used to spend almost all his time building toys and reading.

My father always lamented that Sam was a very intelligent man, who wasted his abilities by indulging in these ‘hobbies’ of his. He said that even as a carpenter, Sam would have been a success, if he had stuck with it seriously and professionally. To be frank, he did not always encourage me to spend a lot of time with Sam, because he feared that I might end up like him; a dilettante who is not a success in life (and even now, quite independent of Sam, he still does!) Many times when I did not study, both he and my mother used to say half-jokingly, “Don’t procrastinate; you will end up like Sam”. There was some truth in what they said, based both on Sam’s inclinations, and my own. What’s the use of knowledge if it’s not put to good use? What is the use of having ability, if one does not have staying power? Sam used to fondly remember circumstances when he had asked a question in the middle of a lecture to a famous scientist, which the learned man could not answer. My father used to say, so what; after all, is Sam the famous scientist?

Although my parents’ criticism of Sam was quite valid, I appreciated the fact that Sam was a man who truly followed his own destiny. I suspect that he was aware of all the things which people like my parents said about him, but he had long decided that they would not matter to him. He was a non-conformist who let his heart lead him to his true callings. He eschewed money, fame, or even respect from the supposed higher middle class of society, much of which gauges a man by his success and his social status. I liked him, and while receptive to my father’s warnings, was always ready to listen to him talk.

Sometimes Sam used to come to my place and give me a book to read, or show me one of his inventions. He used to praise the Karanji or Patties that my mother used to offer him. My father used to meet him and, hiding his impatience, used to listen to our rants about Oppenheimer and Fermi. I think Sam was happy that he had renewed his old friend’s acquaintance through his friend’s son. I can say that he had also found a new friend in the son. He once gave me Silvan Schweber’s ‘In the shadow of the bomb’, an excellent contrasting study of Hans Bethe and Oppenheimer, based on their life, times, and personalities. Sam had a profound and diverse knowledge of the history of physics and also the events which accompanied its growth, an interest that he infectiously transmitted to me. He used to say that out of all the physics pioneers, his favourite was the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. The comparison and coincidence could not have been more apt. Szilard was a maverick scientist, a non-conformist, and a brilliant prophet. Just like Sam, Szilard was a peripatetic who lived out of a suitcase, never held a formal university post, and despised official academic scientific research. Yet, this genius in the shadows was more prescient and saw further into the future than anyone else, and today stands as one of the most important scientists of the century: the foremost herald of the atomic age (It was Szilard who, in 1933, long before fission in Uranium was discovered and long before anyone else thought about it, had the first inkling about possible and vast amounts of energy from a fission like process)

As my own knowledge about these matters grew, I used to take pleasure in telling Sam facts which he did not know, and seeing him chuckle at the mention of a particularly amusing one. He also read widely into every imaginable subject, and you could really discuss anything under the sun with him. He may not have been a scientist, but his enthusiasm for science outgrew that of most scientists that I have come across.

Probably the most memorable trip concerned the time when he took me out for a hearty breakfast at a small, typically Maharashtrian restaurant in front of Food World on Bhandarkar Road. After we finished eating, he brought out a wonderful and amusing toy that he had bought in Delhi. It consisted of two pink ‘magnetic hearts’ that swung on a small hinge on a long metal wire. One heart had the makeup and face of a girl, and the other of a boy. All you had to do was set the two hearts in circular motion. Like a couple who are angry at one another, the hearts would first swing away. Then, just like a couple who gradually make up with each other, the hearts would start coming closer, although in a haphazard manner. Finally, in a rib-tickling oscillatory motion, they finally settled down very close to each other in a diffident kiss. All these movements were governed by the intricate interplay and geometry of the magnets in the contraption. After witnessing the hearts’ endearing performance in the restaurant, I found myself hysterically laughing, and also being fascinated by the complex physics of magnetism that governed their motion. I could see that I shared my excitement with all the waiters in the restaurant. It is undoubtedly the simple, amusing things like these, that hide the most profound principles of science. That’s what makes it worth studying.

I met Sam many times, a few times in his dilapidated den of books and toys, many times in the most diverse events connected with science, and a couple of times when he visited my place. It was difficult to contact him because he neither owned a phone nor had an email address. Even when you visited him, more often than not he would be gone to some scientific event in or out of town.

When I visited India last December, I made up my mind to meet Sam. After coming to the US, I have updated myself considerably about science, history and technology, thanks to the magnificent library here. I was sure that Sam would love to hear tidbits from my bag of new facts. I would have contacted him much earlier if he had a phone. Because of his relative inaccessibility and other things that came up, meeting him kept on getting postponed, although I resolved to try to do it before I left.

On the morning of December 21, I woke up and was having coffee, when my mother gave me the news. Sam had died in an accident late the previous evening. He had been traveling on his cycle, when he collided with a speeding motorcycle. He passed away before he could make it to the hospital. I felt like our conversation, which had not even yet taken place, had broken off forever in midsentence. Sakal had his obituary as a small piece, in which they noted that he was an inventor. Sam would have liked that. I have kept the cutout.

I will always remember Sam as a man who went after his heart, and neglected the conventional dictates of society and worldly life. He may have been criticized and may not have been well off, but he was one of those who tossed tradition and convention aside, and did it cheerfully. He recognized why it is that mankind wonders at nature, at the cosmos, and human life. In him, I could get a glimpse of the raw, innocent curiosity that we should all have about the world around us. It is also a harsh and true fact that such sincere explorers are frequently not recognized by society as a valuable addition to its kind. But that is the price they pay for being mavericks.

Sam was in a significant way, responsible for introducing me to the heroes of physics and atomic energy, and inculcating a lifelong interest in the history and philosophy of science that will always give me solace; I believe this will be a connection that goes beyond my conscious awareness of it. The fact that I could not meet him before he passed away will always gnaw at my conscience to some extent, as would the cruel fact that he passed away in a tragic road accident. But after the incident, all my life, whenever I read or hear anything about Enrico Fermi or Leo Szilard, about the philosophy of science, or especially about a new, amusing invention, I will always ask myself,
“What would Sam think of this?”…

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