Ahmed Shafee

Jamal Nazrul Islam: The passionate learner

March 17, 2013

Prof_Dr.Jamal-Nazrul-IslamLast year when my university was looking for a convocation speaker, I suggested the name of Jamal Nazrul Islam, but learnt immediately that he had already been one. It occurred to me then that indeed if one had to choose 12 (the number of convocations we have had) most intellectually impressive persons in Bangladesh, J.N. Islam could not be kept out of the list.

I had heard about J.N. Islam since I was a sophomore at Curzon Hall, because his nephew was my classmate, and always spoke with great awe and pride about his bright uncle at Cambridge, even though he had not yet completed his Ph.D. I had a look at his work and, since I could not understand even a single sentence, was filled with awe too, and began to fear that such abstract intellectual pursuit was probably beyond my ability and temperament. But when the time came to apply abroad for graduate studies, I could not resist the temptation of contacting Cambridge, which meant J.N. Islam, as I did not know anybody else. His nephew must have passed on some good words about me and J.N. Islam made my admission a certainty.

I had always been a parasite in my family, all the time depending on others for everything non-academic, and my parents were uncertain if I could manage on my own. I assured them that I knew somebody there whose letters were so nice, I felt I could count on his help if any emergency arose. Indeed when I arrived at Cambridge and began to feel a bit uneasy in a small English town where everybody spoke with a strange East Anglian accent unfamiliar to me, I went straight to his house instead of my college hostel. He and his wife Mrs. Suraya Islam received me with such warmth that I immediately felt relieved.

Later I realized what a great host this family was and how they really enjoyed making nostalgic Bangladeshi students feel at home. We spent many weekend afternoons at their place, gossiping in the typical Bangladeshi fashion, but the Islams never made any negative remarks about anybody. It was the epitome of a genteel family.

Though J.N. Islam was working with the famous sci-fi writer and astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, having switched to astrophysics, which remained his life-long passion, he did become a victim of Cambridge University politics and had to find a job in London. Those were hard days, commuting daily by train. They loved their home in a peaceful suburb of Cambridge and did not want to leave it. Eventually, however, he decided to come back to a free Bangladesh, and became a Professor at Chittagong University which he preferred to Dhaka, as their huge family home complex was atop a series of hills at the heart of Chittagong.

downloadWith some help from colleague Prof. A.M. Harun ar Rashid and bureaucrat-cum-science writer Abdullah al-Muti Sharfuddin, and also Professor Salam in Trieste, he was able to establish the most prestigious research institute in Chittagong — the Research Center for Mathematical and Physical Sciences. J.N. Islam organized regularly many international conferences here, with top specialists from all parts of the world. I contributed my insignificant incomplete works to many of these conferences, because it was impossible to ignore his requests, and I always enjoyed meeting him. However, contrary to his hopes, no expatriate Bangladeshi scientist wanted to join his venture in an out of the way institution. J.N. Islam was indomitable. He began to give dozens of graduate courses and supervise a large number of M.Phil. and Ph.D. theses in mathematics, physics, economics, logic, philosophy and everything that interested him, learning the subjects along with his students as he taught them. Indeed it was this characteristic in him, being always a curious student, that I always found most endearing and impressive. I suppose it made him feel younger though his body began to fail at a fairly early age. I always agreed to be an examiner of any thesis supervised by him — his enthusiasm for learning something new every day must have been infectious.

J.N. Islam’s works have been translated into dozens of languages. Some of his books, including the much cited “The Ultimate Fate of the Universe”, are used as texts in very respectable institutions. His list of publications may be one of the most varied in the world. But he had curious idiosyncrasies. He always worked out all long calculations by hand and disliked using even a simple calculator. He never converted his car to CNG and did not mind paying the high octane prices, which he could ill afford. We sometimes joked about these preferences, but he only smiled.

Though, like the rest of his family, he too probably used Urdu more frequently at home, at least during his childhood, as most aristocratic Muslim families with West Bengal connections did in those days, he was an ardent Tagore fan and spoke Bangla with a perfect accent. Bangla Academy has published some of his popular science books and they were bestsellers. He had great respect for basic Islamic values, though he was also one of the most secular persons I have seen.

Jamal Nazrul Islam was a great scientist, a fantastic teacher, but an even greater human being. His death is a huge loss to the nation, and to me personally.

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Ahmed Shafee is a physicist.

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13 Responses to “ Jamal Nazrul Islam: The passionate learner ”

  1. Ataule Selim on May 6, 2014 at 2:46 am

    DR Jamal Nazrul Islam was indeed a great person- in his intellect.

    He hoped way too much on Bangldesh and it’s society. Infact our country and society is not at all ready and fit to honor such gifted individual or scientist.. We all appreciate digital telesmati invented by another talent Sajib Wajed Joy.Hence the fate of our country-Always top in Corruption rating.!!!

  2. raihan ier on March 31, 2014 at 11:35 pm

    sir
    you were with us but we did not show esteem and failed to value you. in which country noble man will not be honoured, there noble man will not be born. sorry sir. the world will recall you. may you live a peaceful live. please pardon us.

    thanks for your sacrifice

  3. liton on March 23, 2013 at 12:18 am

    i am proud of our JN Islam. this is one of the best obituaries i have ever read. I am also proud of my respectable teacher A.Shafee. I miss my charismatic teacher.

  4. Naiyyum Choudhury on March 19, 2013 at 4:56 pm

    A great soul whose loss is an immense loss to the nation, unfortunately not appreciated by those who talk of digital Bangladesh- a science based society! I knew him for long and he happens to be my relation about which we did not talk much. He is a renowned physicist. Though my subsidiary subject was physics I did not think that subject suitable for me, I chose biochemistry as my trade. I know him as a prestigious Fellow of the Bangladesh Academy of Sciences and also TWAS, but his level of scientific talent became obvious to me when I came across his RCMP in Chittagong University. He called me there a number of times to speak on biotechnology, food safety, S&T Policy etc. He called many others, based on his own judgment not on the basis of party affiliations. Once I was there along with DU Professor Ahmed Shafee (now VC, Eastwest University) and Oxford Professor LN Johnson, Professor Salam’s wife (now both deceased). Shafee talked about telomeres and I talked about biotechnology. Professor Islam’s understanding and concept about the recent development in modern biotechnology was admirable. He gave a number of lectures in the Academy, the last one was on Origins of life, DNA, and the Chromosome, held on 13 December 2012 at the AECD. He went deep into the development of modern molecular biology and how physics has helped in understanding the origin of life which many of us claiming to be well versed in modern molecular biology did not know. I attended the lecture he gave as Chief Guest in the National Conference on Physics for Technology Development held in Dhaka on 27 December. Everyone was bewildered the way he related physics with development, patriotism, society, ethics and again if one was not carefully listening to the speech it would have seemed out of context.

    Very few people at least in the policy making body knew such a great scientist as he was not interested at all to sell his intellect for gaining favour which many of us do. I remember an incident. In a meeting of the ECNCST held in the ministry he came little late. The Science Minister was presiding; Secretary and other high officials were present. As usual he was looking for a sit in the remote back of the meeting. I told the Minister that he is a very renowned scientist and then there the Minister arranged a chair for him beside him. Contrary to common belief Professor Islam was not rich I knew that he had to somehow arrange for his ticket for coming to Dhaka for the meeting. I told the Minister that he should be paid his plane fare. I was surprised that the Minister was so impressed about his modesty that he right away gave ticket money from his own pocket. I do not know whether the Minister got reimbursement of that. I appreciated the attitude of the Minister.

    Professor Islam lived a very simple but highly academic life and kept himself completely aloof from politics. However, he had his strong voice about important national issues. This is probably why he is not liked by either of the two major parties. But he is a pride of the nation who was engaged in science and scientific research, more than talking about science and talking about him. I remember once Professor Salam when asked about why we are not progressing like the West in science he replied, “You people you always talk of science too much but you do not do science”. Professor Islam was an exception. I hope we get more exceptions like him.

  5. Abdallah Habib on March 19, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    Indeed,god-gifted. Such is the magnanimity of Allah Subhana wo Ta’ala that He bestows knowledge on whomsoever He decides to.
    Allah does not require any acknowledgement for his Gifts, otherwise He would not give a drink to the dis/mis-believers. To Allah the value of this world is less than one wing of a gnat.
    Hawkins denies God and necessity of His Existence.Even then God bestows. Hawkins is a proof that even a vegetable can be gifted, by Lord’s Desire.
    One may be secular but not god-less.

  6. Lutful Bari Bhuiyan on March 18, 2013 at 10:41 pm

    Indeed he was a most passionate student of physics and blessed with a keen, analytical mind. In his death and the death a few days ago of Dr. A. L. Chowdhury the nation lost two great advocates of science. May Allah rest their souls in peace and grant them Paradise.

  7. Shahjahan on March 18, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    You should have written this before his death. We should start a culture to appreciate great person’s achievement during their life time. It is not a shameful act to praise some living person and at the same time we should not wait till some one’s death to acknowledge their contribution.

    • Saiful Islam ROSSI on March 19, 2013 at 2:51 pm

      shahjahan did u know his name before this writing?

  8. anwarul on March 18, 2013 at 11:17 am

    Well written Ahmed Shafee sir, it is indeed a big loss to our nation and scientific world as well. we will keep him alive in his deeds and his brilliant contributions to this scientific world. May Allah give him Jannah and rest in peace!!!

  9. mahmudul hasan on March 18, 2013 at 8:22 am

    May almighty grant this geat soul of our land eternal peace in the jannah.

  10. Taj Hashmi on March 17, 2013 at 10:39 pm

    An excellent obituary of a great scientist and human being by another great scholar! I enjoyed reading it. I knew Jamal Nazrul Islam and his family, including his gifted nephew, another renowned physicist and versatile scholar based in Singapore. I learnt some new things from this article. Thanks a lot Ahmed Shafee for sharing your thoughts with us.

  11. Rasel on March 17, 2013 at 9:09 pm

    Thank you so much sir for your informative writing. We also lost your precious Teacher,guide & well wisher.But he will remain our pride & inspiration ever.

  12. afsan on March 17, 2013 at 8:15 pm

    What a wonderful man, an ideal man. I listened to him once at a residence where he spoke about the metaphysical core of any idea. the ideas have stayed with me after all these years.

    Thanks for writing

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