This coming weekend my alma mater is celebrating the life of Piotr Decowski, a beloved member of Smith’s physics department who passed away in May. Sadly, I won’t be able to make it back to Northampton for the symposium. Piotr made an indelible mark on me. I had only one class with him while I was at Smith — Modern Physics in fall term of my first year. Just out of a high school, unsure of my next steps, possibly interested in physics, but also deeply attracted to history and philosophy, I entered Modern Physics filled with equal parts unbridled enthusiasm and immense uncertainty. Would my high school physics background prove sufficient as I jumped into a 200-level college physics course? Did I really want to study physics, and did I even know what physics was? (I come from a family that has a strong humanities bent to it.) Would I fit in at Smith and could I ever live up to the legacy of outstanding women that the institution had produced?
Piotr was exactly the professor I needed to encounter in my first encounter with Smith physics. He was filled with joy and gentleness, and upon setting foot in his classroom, one could not help but share the wonder at just how amazing the physical world could be. Physicists can be egotistical people, who like the exclusivity of the club to which they belong. Not Piotr. He was warm and welcoming. The beauty, the strangeness, the wonder of physics were at the center of Piotr’s classroom. I remember Piotr with an eternal twinkle in his eye. I felt like I was walking with a guide, who, despite significantly more experience and knowledge, still held a quiet, joyous wonder about the world. And that joyous wonder was contagious.
Near the end of my semester in Modern Physics, the department organized a dinner before one of the Five College physics symposium talks. I think the dinner was at Piotr and Ineke’s house, though I’m not certain. It was November, a week or two before Thanksgiving break, but dinner consisted of turkey and cranberry sauce and all the Thanksgiving fixings. Eating Thanksgiving dinner with the junior and senior majors, faculty, and classmates in Modern Physics, I distinctly felt that I was “home”. And Piotr was the person who had welcomed me into that family. More than 15 years since graduating from Smith, I still have not found a group of physicists that feel so comfortably like family as the Smith physicists, and so this weekend my heart will be with the Smith physics family as they gather to remember Piotr.