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Jürg X Saladin, Ph.d. - R.I.P

How strange to learn that one of the most important men in your intellectual life has vanished from this world without you ever knowing it.

I just got a letter informing me that nearly 3 weeks ago, Dr. Jürg Saladin of the University of Pittsburgh, Professor Emeritus of physics and my graduate thesis advisor in the 1980s, had died after a long illness.

Jürg and I had a very conflicted relationship. I wasn’t the best student he ever had, but he acknowledged that I was a hard worker and I wanted to succeed, and he helped me do so. He taught me a great deal about what it meant to be a scientist and of the value of proper scientific inquiry and hard work. Those lessons served me well as I worked for him as a postdoctoral researcher, and then moved on to Florida State University before deciding to leave science.

Jürg was a short, burly fellow with the strength of a bull and a huge laugh. He was full of stories about his past, especially about the famous scientists who trained him, such as Wolfgang Pauli, and he had an aphorism for everything. When I despaired of having an experiment ready for beam time (a deadline that was as certain as the ones I face every month, and considerably more costly if blown), he would laugh and say, “As my commanding officer in the Swiss Army used to say, Mike: ‘Saladin, there are 24 hours in the day… plus the whole night!'”

When he got mad, he got REALLY mad. And when he was triumphant, he was REALLY triumphant. Whenever we did an experiment, no matter how large or small, he always insisted that his graduate students be photographed with him in a portrait next to the apparatus, as a record of what we had achieved together.

He was easily one of the most picturesque people I have ever met, and that’s saying something, since after changing fields I’ve met everyone from Thomas Dolby and Buckethead to Gary Numan and Peter Gabriel.

Just one of the many stories I heard about him during our time together: when Jürg was an officer in the Swiss Army in the years after World War II, he was leading an armored column on practice maneuvers during a storm. The column got lost and night was falling, and the road they were on gradually petered out into a dirt path and then just ended at a nondescript barbed-wire fence. Captain Saladin, not known for his patience in his youth, ordered sappers forward with wire cutters, made short work of the fence, and led the column onward. Minutes later, the column reached a road, picked the most likely direction to get them where they thought they had to go… and promptly drove up to a frontier post on the French border.

From the wrong side.

The French authorities decided that the paperwork would be too much hassle—it is possible but unlikely that they were cowed by the tanks—and simply opened their gates and let the column through, back into Switzerland, thus making Jürg the most recent military commander in history to successfully invade France. When I heard this story, all I could think of was, “Yep… that’s Dr. Saladin, all right.”

It’s strange to think that I will never speak to him again. My condolences to his family and colleagues.

MrSpiral, Ph.D., University of Pittsburgh, Physics and Astronomy, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, 1992

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