A Passage From India
Piyare Jain of Physics nurtures two cultures while devoting his life to UB.
Physics professor Piyare L. Jain is, like the subatomic particles he studies, something of an anomaly.
Piyare Jain had this traditional Indian chair custom-made in his hometown of Hoshiarpur in the state of Punjab.
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Photo: Frank Cesario
In a field dominated by large research teams backed by multimillion-dollar grants, Jain works alone. Yet in competition with bigger and better-funded teams, he has published more than 175 articles and racked up an impressive list of discoveries.
Well known today in the highly specialized world of particle physics, he did postdoctoral work involving liquid crystals at the University of Chicago in the 1950s; his first research was in the groundbreaking area of nuclear magnetic resonance.
At one time, he was the only native of India on the UB faculty. Today he is a leading member of a burgeoning Buffalo-area Indian population that comprises more than 500 families.
But perhaps most noteworthy is the fact that Professor Jain ("Lal" to his friends and colleagues) has taught physics at UB since 1954, in a remarkable career that began under UB chancellor Clifford Furnas. Today he continues to display undiminished enthusiasm for his discipline, unwavering dedication to shaping the lives of his students, and enduring love of the university that first welcomed him 44 years ago.
Jain was brought to UB by former physics department chair Lyle Phillips. He quickly found UB more than an employer and Phillips an atypical boss: At the end of his first year on the faculty, Jain was offered a one-year visiting appointment at the University of Chicago. Believing it impossible for an assistant professor to be granted academic leave in only his second year, Jain was amazed when Phillips immediately arranged a sabbatical. A later offer from Berkeley netted Jain another leave, again before he received tenure.
If such professional courtesies played a large role in fostering Jain's abiding loyalty to UB, it was a personal gesture that cemented the bond. One summer while Jain was visiting his family in India, his older brother died. Unable to return until late in the fall semester, Jain was astounded to discover that Phillips himself had taught his courses during his absence and that each of his paychecks had been deposited into his bank account.
"He was an extraordinary person," says Jain of his friend and mentor. "You understand, I was a foreigner. Anyone would be concerned about losing his job. And he did these things for me. Those values, those people who have played such a part in my life, I cannot forget."
It's not surprising, then, that in addition to his worldwide reputation for his research, Jain is renowned at UB as a demanding, yet concerned, teacher who goes to extraordinary lengths to help his students not only succeed but excel.
Among the hundreds of students Jain has helped over the years was a promising medical student who had taken only a single course with him. At the time, oral examinations before members of the science faculty were required for all advanced degrees. During his first try at the exams, the young man froze in panic. Knowing his ability, Jain invited the student to come by his office every week during lunch for practice examinations. At his next attempt, Jain asked the first question and the young man answered with confidence and poise. He not only passed the exam, but went on to a distinguished medical career.
"He was not my student, but I knew what his problem was," Jain recalls. "He had never faced four or five faculty questioning him." The veteran UB professor believes that each student is different, and his teaching philosophy is based on understanding and providing for those individual needs. "If you feel for the students, you feel what they need," he says. "If you have the power to give it to them, you can change their lives."
"Here, it doesn't matter where you came from. If you work hard, you can become a great person."
Also sensitive to the unique needs of foreign students, Jain helped found the International Club and the India Association. And it was with considerable pride that he fostered the growth of the local Indian community, serving in his early years at UB as an unofficial ambassador for his native land. He recounts with delight celebrating his first Indian Independence Day in 1955 in Buffalo, assisted by his American students, when he performed dances, magic tricks and other traditional entertainment. "It was great fun, even when my magic tricks failed," he chuckles.
"As an American citizen and a native of India, I have a responsibility to both countries to foster mutual understanding," he says. "When I gave talks on India to groups locally, I learned about other people and they learned about me."
One of the things he loves most about his adopted country is the freedom to compete on the basis of one's achievements, rather than being defined by one's background. "Here, it doesn't matter where you came from," he explains. "If you work hard, you can become a great person."
Jain's research and publications have won him the respect of his colleagues both in the U.S. and throughout the tightly knit, but fiercely competitive, worldwide community of particle physics researchers. One of his most striking achievements is his recent proof of the existence of extremely short-lived particles called anomalons.
Although tantalizing hints of their existence appeared to several researchers more than 20 years ago, virtually everything about the particles including the name "anomalons," which arose from a typographical error announcing the appearance of anomalous particles in certain reactions remained open to question. Jain alone argued that their existence would be proved with the advent of more powerful particle accelerators.
Piyare Jain performs a candle dance in a 1955 Buffalo celebration of Indian Independence Day.
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Using what he calls his "poor man's technique" of very thin specialized photographic emulsions, Jain finally was able to demonstrate the particle's existence using the new, more powerful accelerator at the Brookhaven National Laboratory. His recent paper in the British Journal of Nuclear and Particle Physics puts the controversy to rest and proves he was right about the conditions under which anomalons can exist.
"In 1984, my colleagues thought this was a dead issue," Jain remarks. "With this paper, I am saying there is a pulse and the heart is beating; they were just using the wrong stethoscope to look for it." His results are all the more notable because he solved this puzzle with a limited budget and the assistance of only one postdoctoral researcher, in contrast to the typical particle physics research team of 40 to 50 heftily funded scientists.
According to Jain, his research plays a vital role in his ability to stimulate and inspire his students: "Research gives students something new to pursue. And basic research is what makes the U.S. the world leader in developing new ideas and technologies."
On his long and distinguished career of research, teaching and community service, Jain reflects, "I have fun. I still enjoy doing physics. And I love teaching. Being with all these young people, you never get old."
"Make a difference in one person's life, and that person will make a difference in someone else's," Jain's father used to advise him. For generations of UB students, Professor Piyare Jain has done just that.
Blair Boone, Ph.D. '84, is a Buffalo-based freelance writer.