Ten Years Later


Taking advantage of this opportunity, I would also like to present my recollections of the relations with professor Michał Życzkowski. In 2000, in my article published in a special issue of the Journal of Theoretical and Applied Mechanics published on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the birthday of professor Michał Życzkowski, I wrote the following paragraph at the end of the text:


The author wishes to thank prof. Józef Nizioł, the head of the Institute of Mechanics and Machine Design of the Cracow University of Technology for the invitation to participate in this Anniversary Volume devoted to prof. Michał Życzkowski whose professional achievement, idealism and wisdom are strongly admired.

The importance of this paper as a contribution to the theory of thin-walled beams is out of proportion to prof. Michał Życzkowski’s contribution to the author’s scientific career at its every step. The professor whose jubilee is here celebrated was the supervisor of the author’s doctoral thesis and a kind reviewer at the moment of receiving every other scientific title.

I did not expect that, a decade later, I would write about the professor who would no longer oblige me and many others with his wisdom in every sense of this word.

We were both born in the same year. We attended the same 3rd (now, the 2nd) Jan III Sobieski Gymnasium and Grammar School. He was in year two, when I was starting to study there. When I was in year two, he was taking the O-level exams. Already at that time, I heard that there was an exceptionally gifted pupil at the school, who covered the syllabus of two forms in one year and who is able to pose mathematical problems that the teacher of mathematics was unable to solve. By a happy coincidence, I got to know him in that period at a sports camp in Siedzina Podtatrzańska. The bed I was given neighboured on Michał’s bed. With one exception, me, all the participants in the camp had already taken their O-level examinations. As in school, they treated the younger colleagues at the camp with a certain measure of superiority as well. Thanks to Michał and his authority, I was admitted to the circle of “adults”.

Our life paths converged at the Cracow University of Technology. He studied at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering, while I studied at the Faculty of Civil Engineering. He was a third year student, when I was a freshman. Year 1952 was characteristic for both of us. After the third year of studies, he became an assistant lecturer at the Department of Machine Parts of the FME, while me, after the first year of studies, I became an assistant lecturer at the Department of Mathematics of the FCE. I mention these facts, for they were significant for our relations.

In 1955, I got the degree of the master of science and engineer, while Michał got the degree of the doctor of technical sciences (the first at the CUT!). Directly after completion of my studies, professor Z. Siedmiograj – the Head of the Department of Mathematics – suggested I should talk to and establish a research relation with doctor Michał Życzkowski, arguing that he was already a rare class of a researcher. In 1956, I moved to the Department of Structural Analysis and Strength of Materials, as I wanted to have a research platform shared with doctor Michał Życzkowski. In 1957, my new tutor suggested direct research cooperation with me. In 1960, doctor Michał Życzkowski defended his postdoctoral dissertation, while I defended my doctoral thesis several months later.

For me, this period of direct research cooperation was superb. And difficult. Associate professor Michał Życzkowski always repeated, when encouraging to study, that a doctoral dissertation is not a goal in itself and that a doctoral dissertation is only a periodic summing up of scientific research work and scientific achievements of a person in a given period.

Right before the submission of my doctoral dissertation to the Faculty Council, there occurred an event that distressed me greatly. I feel deep discomfort about this until today. The head of my Department refused to accept associate Professor Michał Życzkowski as the supervisor of my dissertation, as he considered himself (sic!) to be the best candidate for this function. I was totally surprised by Michał’s position taken with respect to this issue. I write about it, for those who did not know Professor Życzkowski closely shall be able to see his great modesty that is characteristic for exceptionally wise persons. Michał attempted to convince me to the position taken by the head of my Department. Of course, he did not agree with his reasoning, but he tried to understand his position. He said: “Let‘s agree to this. He is just before retirement and does not have sufficient number of supervised dissertations to get the full professorship. He is about to finish his research career and I am at the beginning of mine.”

That is why Professor Janusz Orkisz is number 1 on the reputable list of 29 dissertations supervised by Professor Życzkowski. In my doctoral dissertation, the differential equation in the boundary issue that governed the solution was a quadratic, nonlinear, partial equation. When searching for any approximate solution, I tried to discuss with mathematicians who were dealing with partial equations at the CUT and at the JU – to no avail. It was the intuition of associate Professor Michał Życzkowski that helped here, as he showed a streak of genius and the ability to associate mathematical formalism with a specific physical problem.

Our direct, daily cooperation lasted until I left Poland to stay abroad for a year, which my research supervisor also had a hand in. I would also like to mention one other form of care – which should be remembered by all those who manage research teams – consisting in the rigorous demand for all research achievements of a charge to be presented at seminars, symposia, conferences, congresses, etc. Associate professor Życzkowski had naturally great contacts with the major research centres in Poland (e.g. Institute Of Fundamental Technological Research at the Polish Academy Of Sciences) and abroad and his scientific authority facilitated considerably the acceptance and presentation of his works and works prepared in cooperation with him. I remember when he made me - a greenhorn graduate unable to swim - take a deep plunge by taking me to a national conference in Łódź, where I was to present my master's thesis. The only guideline he gave me on the train was: “learn by heart the first and the last sentence of your paper". I did. Yet I forgot the first sentence the moment I saw the most eminent Polish professors sitting in the first row, including professor Stefan Zięba, a regular member of the PAS, an outstanding researcher in the domain of theoretical and applied mechanics, famous for his razor-sharp tongue. not always parliamentary (in the former sense of the word), and for being an uncompromising debater. I looked at Michał begging for aid. He smiled and raise his thumb up. And the presentation went on, with quite a success.

Participation in scientific conferences with professor Życzkowski provided not only professional knowledge, but also, primarily in the '50s through the '80s, the knowledge how to survive scientific meetings behind the iron curtain with the help of tinned food, a packet of butter taken from Poland and ... an electric heater that occasionally did not match the socket or the voltage, and how to relax after a whole day long effort, e.g. by participating in bridge tournaments (I felt honoured  by playing with him in a pair) organized by the professor with true passion. Unfortunately, some of his lessons were wasted. Trying to save my face, I will mention only the shoe polishing issue (only patent leather shoes in shop windows were as well polished as Michał’s shoes).

The professor graduated at the specializations: Machine Technologies and Rail Vehicles at the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering. In the first domain, he had quite a good professional practice, as he purchased (at the beginning of the ‘60s) his first car – a Syrenka (I bought a Moskvitch). The difference between our material “well-being” resulted from the fact that Michał had already three children at that time, while I had only one and I had just returned from a year long stay at the  Stockholm School of Theology. Both vehicles shred one feature: constant breakdowns. Once, when we were returning from holidays at the seaside, I tried to follow him, because Michał was an expert, while I have not learned what I can find under the hood until now, and I still do not understand how it was possible for a Syrenka vehicle to move, when one had to constantly “activate” one of its elements by pulling it with a string during a ride (Michał had a reserve of string in his trunk. I still cannot understand why the Polish People’s Republic suffered from constant shortage of string). Michał was able to solve such problems as well!!

Finally, the professor decided we had to change our vehicles and the only chance for us to do so at that time was to buy one together. He undertook to “arrange” for a car voucher. And he did. We bought a Fiat 125. Michał prepared two identical copies of special user’s regulations. It was a masterwork. Unfortunately, I failed to find the original in my archives. Contrary to the expectations of the environment, our friendship got deeper at that time.

We were creating from scratch a new inter-faculty speciality invented by us, namely the theory of engineering structures. Its curriculum was to be similar to the curricula of Western universities. We decided to present the proposal to a special team established by Councils of Faculties. We had an advantage over the rest of the team, as we had our own experience with curricula, gathered at Western universities. The following discussion was extremely detailed and fierce. On some issue, a straight majority disagreed with Michał. Then, for the first and last time, I saw Michał get angry and claimed that, up to that moment, he had a chance to witness only collective wisdom. And he won! (... we did!).

In connection with the above-quoted Latin maxim, I would like to end this memory about a Friend with a great example – a description of an event that I carved in stone, according to the French saying: „quand nous faisons du bien a quelqu'un ecrivons le sur le sable, mais quand quelqu'un nous fait du bien gravons le dans la pierre”. During the martial law, I returned my card of membership in the Polish United Workers' Party. The discussion in the University Committee of the Party took a long time. In the meantime, Michał with his wife, Teresa, came to see me at my home. They brought me a bunch of white and red carnations. Only that and nothing less than that!!


How could one fail to respect, love and always remember such a Man?!!

Professor emeritus Stefan Piechnik

Cracow University of Technology