A man who sought transcendent beauty through science


Prof. Syed Twareque Ali (September 26, 1942 – January 24, 2016) Photo: Institute For Mathematical Research (Inspem), Universiti Putra Malaysia


Prof. Syed Twareque Ali (September 26, 1942 – January 24, 2016) Photo: Institute For Mathematical Research (Inspem), Universiti Putra Malaysia

This January 24th marked the sixth anniversary of the death of Syed Twareque Ali, who was truly a gift from Bangladesh to the scientific world. “A deep thinker who sought transcendent beauty through the truths of science,” was how a respected colleague, Professor Goldin of Rutgers University, described him at a 2016 commemoration in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Twareque Ali’s entire adult life was dedicated to science. True to his character, he also died at work while at a conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Twareque’s childhood was fairly unremarkable apart from the seriousness of his academic intent and yearning for academic excellence. His schooling began at St. Gregory’s High School and College in Old Dhaka, then went to St. Anthony’s in Lahore and finally returned to St. Gregory’s, where he stood first in the matriculation examinations in former East Pakistan in 1959.

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After receiving first class in both BSc Honors and MSc in Theoretical Physics, and after a stint at Atomic Energy, Twareque went to the University of Rochester to study with Gerard Emch, a pioneer in quantum mechanics. After his PhD, he continued to hone and perfect his skills through a series of multi-year postdoctoral and visiting researcher positions between 1973 and 1981. From the University of Trieste (1973-75), the University of Toronto (1973-78) to the Technical University of Clausthal (1979-81), he traveled in extensive research collaborations with other scientists who became close friends, mentors and co. – researchers for life. As one of them put it, Twareque was “someone with whom one could, without self-consciousness, discuss the meaning of life’s joys and disappointments”.

Having met Twareque Bhai (as I called him) once in 1965, I was overjoyed to learn in 1981 that he would join Concordia University in Montreal as a faculty member. I had taught economics there and we became very good friends. Concordia became his new home for the remaining 35 years of his tireless work and until his last breath.

There is much to be said for the man’s long and effective work in physics and mathematics. For the uninitiated, quantum mechanics is the branch of physics that deals with very small molecules and atoms and their components. The latter are known as “fundamental” or “elementary” particles that are not made up of other particles. Classic mechanics, on the other hand, deals with physical objects as well as celestial bodies. The problem with classical mechanics is that it is not very useful at the level of atoms and electrons, hence the birth of “quantum” ideas.

Much of Twareque bhai’s work falls under stochastic quantum mechanics. Franklin E. Schroeck, Jr. stated in an obituary that “the three of us founded the field together.” The trio, of course, consisted of Eduard Prugovecki (one of Twareque’s mentors), Twareque and Schroeck.

His subsequent work is more difficult to describe for laypeople, which involved geometric methods in quantum mechanics, “phase space”, “quantization” and “coherent states”. In addition to the names already mentioned, Twareque also met Jean-Pierre Antoine (from the Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium) and Jean-Pierre Gazeau (from the Université de Paris) during his travels in the late 1980s. The three got along very well and over the next 26 years published an extensive body of work, including three books and over a dozen journal articles.

Twareque spread awareness of “advanced science” to the not-so-advanced world. He introduced regular training seminars and courses in Benin (in West Africa), China, Cuba, Poland and later in Malaysia. He devoted a lot of time to organizing, raising funds and attending the above events.

He was a polyglot who had full functionality in teaching and academic writing in French, German and Italian, not to mention English. As his brother Yusuf related, on their daily commute from their home in Lahore to St. Anthony’s, both brothers had learned enough Urdu to sing along to tunes like Ae Mere Dil Kahin, Ye Raat Ye Chandni, and so on. He had an uncanny memory that stretched beyond science to the more ordinary pleasures in life: poems, jokes, ghazals, and in multiple languages ​​too. Twareque bhai could apparently recite endless poems, from the sublime to the ridiculous.

After his death on January 24, 2016, the Journal of Geometry and Symmetry in Physics published an obituary for him in its 2016 issue, as did the Center de Recherches Mathématiques, an institute he co-founded. Many renowned scholars have contributed to these volumes.

May his soul rest in everlasting peace.

Syed M Ahsan is Professor Emeritus of Economics at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada.


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