Tribute to Michał Życzkowski, a colleague and a friend



Me and Michał, we started to study in October 1948 at the Faculty of Communication of Polytechnic Faculties of the AGH University of Science and Technology. There were about 160 of us, including one girl. Michał studied at the department of Rail Vehicles, while I studied in the beginning at the department of Aviation and then, when it was moved in 1949 to the Warsaw University of Technology, I moved to the department of Mechanical Vehicles and tractors. Of course, we shared the majority of lectures during the first two years. We were students of the first year of a new, two-stage system of studies, consisting of 3 years of engineering studies and 2 years of studies ending in a master’s degree. For our M.Sc., we studied machine construction technology in the years 1952-54 already at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, still at the AGH University (the Cracow University of Technology was established later, in 1954).

         My first memories of Michał are connected with a lecture on strength of materials provided by professor Janusz Walczak for students at the second and third semester. Michał draw attention to himself due to his virtuoso mastery of the subject that exceeded the scope of the lectures. We used to turn to him for help in mastering this difficult (for us) material, and he willingly, clearly and methodically explained it to us with great patience. We were impressed that professor Walczak appointed him his assistant lecturer. We thought Michał deserved it. Me, with all first year subject passed with very good results, I observed Michał’s exceptional abilities with true admiration. I was aware that he would go far...

During the fourth semester, me and Michał, we took the major project together. It consisted in developing a technological design of an automobile engine block. At that time, I had a chance to find out that Michał was not only a great theoretician. He resolved technological issues with his characteristic logic and care as well. Part of the work, we performed in his family flat in the Starowiślna Street. During the works, I had the pleasure of meeting his parents, warm-hearted people with exceptional dignity. I had a chance to appreciate their hospitality three years later, when I spent the July holidays in their house in Piwniczna. Me and Michał, we went for short and long excursions, like the day-long trip to Radziejowa, which became especially embedded in my memory. Michał was a great and ingenious mountain guide. He was also a good skier and he willingly went to the Tatra mountains in winter. Of course, apart from mountain tourism, long summer days in Piwniczna were filled with discussions.

After the third year of studies, we did the obligatory six month pre-diploma training period in industry. We were allocated to the Truck Manufacturing Plant in Starachowice. It was a huge, complex plant that employed ten thousand employees at that time (1951) and it even had its own blast furnace. According to the programme of the training period, we collected experience in one department after another. When he worked at the mechanical press department, Michał derived a lengthy formula for the efficiency of the presses. This fractional formula - written in the characteristic minute hand (Michał used to write letters separately) and carried over from one line to the next – extended over several pages. Michał cut the pages horizontally into strips and connected them with paper clips, so that the formula took the form of a long band that was several meters long. We held this “tapeworm” formula up from both ends, which caused a crowd of co-workers to assemble, for it was a really uncommon event!

Within the framework of works of the Scientific Club at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering (where I was the chairman during our M.Sc. studies), we decided to start publishing the “Biuletyn naukowo-techniczny” [Scientific and Technological Bulletin]. It was a monthly journal consisting of several dozen pages in format A4, where colleagues studying for their M.Sc. degrees, researchers from various units and occasionally even professors and “corresponding members” of the SCFM from other Universities of Technology could publish their texts. In the four-person Editorial Committee, Michał (of course!) had the function of the scientific editor, Marek Statter was in charge for acquiring permits for publication from the censorship office (with the successful interview with professor Witold Biernawski, he showed his journalistic skills!), while Mieczysław Wołek took care (successfully) of having the journal printed in due time in Drukarnia Narodowa [National Printing House], which was not easy at the time. I was left with the function of the Chairman of the Editorial Committee. The BNT was published for two years. 24 issues were published in total. The complete set of these issues from professor’s Życzkowski’s library was handed over by his wife, Mrs. Teresa Życzkowska, Ph.D., to the Museum of the Cracow University of Technology.

Michał was an exceptionally diligent and meticulous person. His achievements we due both to his talent and his diligence, as well as his ability to organize his research work. In spite of all his activities, however, he found time to be active in the community. He liked it and did it in a quite natural and friendly way. During the M.Sc. studies, he organized for us a bridge course. He was an ardent bridge player. He treated the game not as a game of cards, but as the theory of combinations realized with playing cards. It was even said that, when considering a candidate for his wife, Michał shall take the her ability to play bridge into account... I experienced his readiness to help his colleagues again at the beginning of my work at the Institute of Metal Cutting (and Machine Tools – as it was called at the time), when professor Biernawski - the founder and director of the Institute – asked me to solve a certain problem related to the plasticity of machined material. The problem turned out difficult to me, but not to Michał.

I kept in touch with Michał after I went to Canada. When he was lecturing in the US, he dropped by to Montreal to give a lecture at the McGill University, which I organized for him within the framework of a series of seminars on mechanics. The lecture generated considerable interest. Michał stayed at my place at the time and, as usual, we had a lot of things to discuss. At the end of each year, we traditionally summed up the ending year. As time went by, the Życzkowskis started to send printed bulletins to their friends. However, I always found a handwritten note from Michał in each issue.

Apart from our contact by mail, whenever I visited Cracow, Michał always invited me to come to see him at his place. It usually involved a tasty dinner prepared by Mrs. Teresa. However, even when she was absent, Michał was also able to fill a table with tasty dishes. In daily matters of life, he was a practical man. He approached such issues with the same, characteristic logic and in the same orderly manner, which he applied in matters of science. In our conversations, I learned about his new speeches, distinctions, publications, educational concepts and plans for the development of the Institute. We always had more than enough subjects to discuss. For us, his colleagues from the times of studies, Michał's career was never questionable. He belonged to the highest-class researches, theoreticians and academic teachers.

In the last years, I watched with apprehension his condition to deteriorate. In August 2004, I still enjoyed watching his satisfaction drawn from the success of the organized Huber symposium and from the publication of Huber’s theory in English for the first time ever. A year later, by the end of May 2005, I came to Cracow to attend the ceremony of awarding the diploma of a Golden Alumnus of the Cracow University of Technology. By a happy coincidence, I came in the right time to participate in the ceremony of the 50th anniversary of Michał’s doctoral dissertation, which took place on 1st June at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering of the Cracow University of Technology. Unfortunately, it was the last time when I saw him...

Michał departed from this world, leaving memories of a wonderful, righteous man, an outstanding scientist, colleague and friend, who offered us his friendship for almost sixty years. He was a person, the memories of whom constitute for me a reference point to those years lived together... Apart from memories, I still have his books with dedications, namely „Tablice funkcji Eulera i pokrewnych” [Tables of Euler and related functions] (PWN 1954) prepared when he was still a student; two volumes of “Współczesne metody obliczeń wytrzymałościowych w budowie maszyn” [Modern methods of strength calculations in machine construction] (PWN 1957 and 1958) translated from Russian together with Marek Statter, and „Obciążenia złożone w teorii plastyczności” [Complex loadings in the theory of plasticity] (IPPT PAN 1973). The last title - written with the logic and clarity characteristic for Michał and in a beautiful style – bears the following dedication:

           To dear Łucek in rememberance of shared moments ...



Łucjan Kops 

McGill University

Montreal, November, 2009

(translated from Polish)