Thursday, May 09, 2013

Dedication: Prof. Jack Holman

Prof. Jack Holman is a pioneer in the subject of heat transfer with his textbooks on thermodynamics, heat transfer and experimental methods. He passed away on May 1st, 2013. Read an obituary at the SMU website.

Let me share some pertinent thoughts in public domain stemming from personal association. The text is modified from another one I was asked to write on him on another occasion.

I was a Teaching Assistant for Prof. Jack Holman all the four years while pursuing my Ph. D. at SMU (1998 - 2002). Once during a discussion with him, I goofed on an explanation about how friction power affects the efficiency of an internal combustion engine (of our cars). At the end of my explanation I raised a doubt, which wouldn't have been there had my understanding been correct. He didn't answer or correct me immediately. "Let me know if you find the answer" is all he said. I found the answer and went to him to apologize for my wrong understanding. "There, you seem to know something now, don't you," came the reply with a beaming smile and a penetrating look above his spectacle rim.

Seeing my interest in thermodynamics, he agreed to offer me any related course that I want as part of my Ph. D. requirement. Eventually I studied Irreversible Thermodynamics -- only student -- from him.

Since Prof. Holman was in my Doctoral Committee, I took the Heat Transfer qualifier exam from him. After going through heat transfer basics for few weeks, I went to him one day and asked to give me the exam. "Arunn, I keep feeling very chilly here. Design a radiation heater for my office room". That was his (one and only) qualifier question to me. I gaped and he assured me that is the question and by way of encouragement, added, "you can design that heater for six months or six weeks or six hours; come back when you feel you have learnt enough and are satisfied." I did pass that exam in one go and let us leave it at that.

Prof. Holman was one among the rare breeds of professors who, instead of making you study, make you learn a subject.

Prof. Holman appointed me to serve as the proof reader for two of his text books (Experimental Methods and Heat Transfer). And in that pretext provided me summer support from the publishers. Initially I was hesitant to point out typos and some errors in the earlier editions. On one such occasion he looked up from the proof and said severely, "Arunn, that is a mistake. Don't be apologetic. Say it. It shall be corrected."

(After a few days he visited my advisor's cabin -- who had by then just begun writing his first book -- and pronounced "One should write the first edition well. Mistakes seldom get corrected and could get carried over unchanged for several editions." My advisor beamed at the solemn face of Prof. Holman; I wanted the office floor to open up and engulf me.)

Well into my Ph. D. and having published some papers and presented them in ASME conferences attended by Prof. Holman, one day when I was rummaging some book in the excellent collection in his office, Prof. Holman turned around from his desk and said, "Arunn, you and *my advisor* know more porous media stuff (our research area) than me."

Among the several anecdotes I could keep citing to showcase his inspiring impact, the above ones speak for his humility and enthusiasm to lead the life of a professor as a life full of constant learning. Prof. Holman is not just a good teacher or a competent researcher. He is a Professor -- one who profess a subject.

Pioneering textbooks written by Prof. Holman have remained popular in India. His Thermodynamics and Heat Transfer books have been used several decades back by my father during his UG days. A generation later, I used them in my UG days too. That I was under the tutelage of Prof. Holman during my Ph. D. days and having apparently survived it successfully, made my father believe that even I could grasp a few engineering concepts.

I am also a proud owner of the first edition signed master copy of Prof. Holman's Thermodynamics -- with hand written corrections -- that was gifted to me just-like-that one day (that edition contains among other interesting stuff, explanation for diffusion using 'billiard-balls' schematic, provided for the first time then, by the author; later editions dropped that chapter). Years later, while at IITM, an email from him wondered if I would be interested to co-author the next edition of his Thermodynamics book. The project didn't materialize.

Towards the end of my Ph. D. tenure, he made an offer to me to take any/all of the books from his private collection from his 'inside' office. The flustered me could meekly lift only a few books on insistence. I am also fortunate to own several other memorabilia from Prof. Holman, including an audio cassette collection of his entire heat transfer lectures, topped with two CD copies of choir and pop music, participated (sung) by him.

Upon finishing my degree, I learnt from the ME Dept. Chair that Prof. Holman had insisted throughout my tenure that I should always be assigned as the TA for his classes. The confidence that knowledge gave me is everlasting for and in my academic career.

Flanneled always in three piece with the tie-pin in place, holding the bagel wrapped in a brown paper bag and coffee, short Hercule Poirot strides in polished black shoes, present always a few minutes earlier at 7:15 AM in our morning race to office, walking into the laboratory constantly reminding me not to jump up from my seat on seeing him... memories are to be cherished.

He was confident I would find a faculty position in the USA. "Arunn, this country needs good teachers; if all of the academics are after grants, who will teach these kids engineering?"

When he learnt I have taken up a position at IITM and moving off to India for good, he had a long discussion with me in his office about what and how I should do in an academic career. At the end of which he said, "I am willing to let you go provided you promise to visit us from time to time".

Among the very few reasons I would have gone back to the USA, keeping that promise would be the better one.

Arunn Narasimhan
Student of Prof. Jack P. Holman


  1. Venkat said...


    A heart warming eulogy and a poignant obituary. I do not know about Prof. Holman, but I can easily gather the beautiful student-teacher relationship. This makes me go back in memory lane about my own favourite teacher. The only true tribute that we can pay to masters is to carry their legacy. Well written .- Venkat

  2. Abi said...

    Thanks, Arunn, for sharing your memories of Prof. Holman. While I knew of him through a couple of his books, it is very nice to see the man through your personal anecdotes.

  3. Ajit R. Jadhav said...

    Hi Arunn,

    Nice to get to know about how Prof. Holman was, as a person. Not at all at a variance from what one would naturally expect him to be, after having gone through his book on heat transfer. ... Lucky you, you got to work under him.

    RIP, Prof. Holman.


  4. Arunn said...

    Venkat, Abi, Ajit: Thanks for reading and the comments.

    Ajit: Yes, I was lucky indeed. Until I got admission, I wasn't even aware Prof. Holman was on the SMU faculty member list.