This is a heartfelt tribute to the late Professor Valentine Joseph, the former Professor of Mathematics, Colombo University.
I write this as a student who once sat in his classroom with eyes filled with wonder and awe, and whose thinking was forever changed by this wonderful human being. This is a tribute to a top scholar, teacher and a human being, one so exceptional that the heavens will surely give a standing ovation to honour his life on earth. I, Professor Joseph’s former student, am also a mathematician, and as such, every word that I speak of him will be as precise and truthful as the math he taught me. In that spirit, he is the single most beautiful mind that I have ever met in my lifetime, and I am sure multitudes of his students who learned from him over several decades will definitely agree with me in unison.
In order to earn such a tribute from several generations of students, a teacher must have extraordinary characteristics and achievements in three areas: as a teacher, as a scholar and finally as a human being. I cannot think of a single human being that I have met during my life as a student who possessed all three of these attributes to the extent of Professor Joseph. While my heart aches with his passing, my mind is filled with gratitude for the privilege to have associated with him even for a few years of my life.
I did not have to come to the doors of Colombo University to know about Professor Joseph as I actually knew him from school days. As a young boy, I racked my brains over the wonderfully-intrinsic problems that showered the Applied Mathematics exams in the seventies. I often asked the question: Who would be creative enough to craft such beautiful problems? I never saw such challenging, yet beautiful problems in any one of the British math textbooks which we followed. One day, one of my teachers who himself was a student of Professor Joseph, told me that a professor named Valentine Joseph, a lecture at the Colombo University, was the creator of these problems. Even more, he told me that Professor Joseph was actually better known for his expertise in the special theory of relativity. After a brief explanation of relativity, I knew instantly that someday I must meet this scholar and learn from him. I know for a fact that the desire to meet him and learn from him played a big part in me arriving at the doors of Colombo University a couple of years later. I can still feel the anticipation I had one warm afternoon as I waited for him to present the first lecture to a packed Physics Lecture Theatre.
His first lecture got us all by surprise. Naturally, we all waited for a lecture filled with equations and theorems but what he really did was open a door. He turned the key and let us in to a brand new universe filled with beauty and flux. He guided us slowly through that universe and we started seeing how equations and theorems formed its fabric and he told stories we had never heard of. When teaching Einstein’s special theory of relativity, of which he was an absolute expert, he taught his students to question everything, the very foundations of the known universe. He opened our minds to new dimensions in which he played the role of a patient and yet kind guide to students who, in turn, simply enjoyed the journey and bowed in sheer respect.
The mathematics journey that he started with us reached its climax in the final year of the Mathematics Special Degree when he explored the beauties of the Minkowski Spacetime which is closely associated with the special theory of relativity. We watched in sheer wonder as he manipulated and connected so many different branches of mathematics together like a child who creates a beautiful picture out of a box of scattered jigsaw pieces.
Today, most of the students who were privileged enough to learn from him are top professionals scattered world over. Almost every Sri Lankan university will have academics who learned the first steps of relativity from this erudite scholar. In North America, almost every state or province today has a mathematics teacher who learned from Professor Joseph. We will all transfer at least a glimpse of the knowledge he gave us to students, thereby immortalizing the legacy of Professor Joseph.
I was, in a way, luckier than most students as I had the privilege to associate with him closely when I returned to the Colombo University as an academic in 1994. I will never forget some of the quotes he told me. He once mentioned the Buddhist saying, “Build a raft to simply cross the river. Never carry it with you after you cross the river.” During a science club talk, he once said, “Don’t run with the pack of wolves; see the reality under your nose.” In a lighter vein, once he immersed an entire audience in laughter by whispering, “He has the greatest unsolved problem of all,” when I, as a bachelor, was giving a talk on unsolved problems in mathematics. The reader would be surprised to hear how he very recently connected some phrases from a famous comic strip “Calvin and Hobbes” to mathematics as he was talking to a visitor who brought him some Calvin books.
He brought so much humour into his class, but always in pure innocent fun, and in my life I have never seen him attack anyone verbally for any reason or speak ill of anyone. This is, as unbelievable as it may sound, simply the truth. Professor Joseph was the humblest of human beings. I still remember the day when wrote “Retired Teacher” as his profession in the attendance list as he quietly and from a back seat attended a talk of one of his students, and then vanished before we could catch up with him. In the mid-nineties, I had the honour of playing a primary role in his farewell. He simply refused any retirement gift but instead agreed to a painting. A painting of him? No, it was a painting of a tiny Earth bathed in a sea of planets. A label coming out of planet Earth simply said, “Albert Einstein Lived Here.” Since then, whenever I visit the Colombo University, and have a chance to come near the Physics Lecture Theatre, I can just see the banner: “Professor Valentine Joseph Taught Here.”
He was simply a legend and the most beautiful mind I have met in my life. I am sure his entire student body will join me in wishing heavenly peace for this wonderful human being, scholar and teacher. May his soul rest in peace.
Dr. Kirthi Premadasa,
Associate Professor of Mathematics,
University of Wisconsin Colleges,
Vice-President, Colombo University Faculty of Science Alumni Association - North America (CUFSAA)