Piotr Decowski came to the Physics department at Smith as a full professor in 1990 from the University of Utrecht where he had been a senior researcher. He had also been a teacher and researcher at universities as diverse as the Center of Nuclear Research, Juelich in Germany, Michigan State University and the University of Warsaw where he received his Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in experimental physics.
Nalini Easwar told me recently that when Piotr came for his interview at Smith he asked if the department could have a folding umbrella available for his talk. It turned out that the umbrella served as an effective visual for a difficult concept he wanted to explain. His illustration sold the department immediately because of his effective and inventive pedagogy.
Piotr’s colleagues say that he is a magician in the laboratory. He has the skill to explain complex problems clearly. He taught the modern physics course for many years and introduced the students to the strange world of quantum mechanics. A poster the students made for him says “We would walk through walls for you!” referring to the microworld of quantum physics where particles tunnel through energy barriers.
Piotr was an acclaimed researcher with a large body of work prior to coming to Smith and he continues to be involved with important large-scale collaborative research efforts in the field of nuclear physics in the U.S and in Europe. Since joining the faculty here he has continued to receive major grants from the NSF and to publish in the most important journals in his specialty. Scattered among the many highly technical titles for his work on nuclear physics, I found a single author publication in 2006 that simply asks the question “How Strange is the Proton?”
Even while maintaining his active research agenda, Piotr has been fully integrated into Smith life. He has chaired the Physics department and served as president of the Smith Chapter of Sigma XI; he has also served in multiple roles on the New England Section of the American Physical Society. Piotr has also served the College on the Administrative Board and has twice been elected to the Committee on Tenure and Promotion. In his first term, I’m told, he introduced PowerPoint to help present cases. He has been a very careful and compassionate reader of tenure and promotion dossiers.
Those of you who have served on T&P know that some of the most pleasant moments are conversations over lunch between cases. I have always been struck at the range of Piotr’s interests, from literature to music to politics and more. My impression has been reinforced by Nalini Easwar’s observation that Piotr is an endless reservoir of knowledge. She said that whenever she has a question about anything, instead of going to Wikipedia, she just walks over to his office.
I discovered that a student has created a Facebook fan group called “Piotr Decowski Is My Hero, and When I Grow Up, I Want To Be Just Like Him.” The creator of the group did add a note saying that she wanted to be just like him, though she didn’t want to be male, a Smith professor or to dress like him. The description says the group is for:
Admirers of Piotr Decowski, the man who knows damn near everything but more specifically taught us about the twin paradox, leptons, fermions, bosons, magic numbers, and quarkonia and never seems to understand how we can forget things. He’s also the man who always has at least one question at a lecture, will reply to an email within an hour or two, and has the huge empty can of beer in his lab. He made a turkey on Thanksgiving, too, and had the Pfabes over. How much cooler can one person be?
One student posted: “The existence of this group, and my invitation to join, made me absolutely yearn for my Smith Physics Family.” And about the beer can, one post explains: “There is or was this huge empty beer can in Piotr’s lab. I was told that it was for some experimental equipment. Regardless, it’s there and I think it’s funny. If I have a lab, I want to have empty cans of beer in it.” There’s more, but I’ll leave it to you to check out Facebook and add your own notes. For now (lacking a beer can) let us all raise a glass to toast our colleague, Piotr Decowski, who has his own fan club on Facebook.