Physics Professor Extraordinaire

I just found out that my favorite physics professor–actually, my favorite college professor, period–passed away last July. Dr. James Imai was instrumental in me changing my minor from English to physics. He was a fantastic lecturer and as astounding as it may sound to non-science folks, he made physics fun.

I entered California State College, Dominguez Hills in 1974 as a junior, planning to major in math and minor in English. Only one or two quarters into my first year there, I took a class with Dr. Imai and fell in love with physics. He had a way of using real world examples to illustrate physics principles and somehow injected humor into every physics lecture.

For instance, in one of my first year physics classes, he escorted the class out to the parking lot to demonstrate how one would hotwire a car. He explained to us how we could wire in a switch that would interrupt the usual pathway a car thief would use to steal the car. You’d turn off the switch to break the circuit so the car couldn’t be hotwired. He also recommended that you dirty up the wires you use for the switch installation so the car thief wouldn’t notice it. I thought it was pretty hysterical at the time that he was teaching all these young, impressionable college students how to steal cars.

He also assigned a very entertaining weekly homework assignment starring the fictional character Joe Whizz. These were page-long word problems in which Joe had some kind of adventure that would illustrate a physics principle. In one I remember, Joe went camping with his good buddy, Neighbor Jones. Near where Joe and his buddy camped, there were some large boulders in which small, natural pools had been carved out. Joe wanted to heat the water in the pools so he could do some hot-tubbing. He decided to put some handy 2-kg stones into the campfire to heat them, then put the stones into the water until the water reached the necessary temperature. We had to figure out how many heated stones it would take to warm the water to the desired temperature.

What was pretty cool about Dr. Imai is that although he kind of talked a macho game, it was me and my friend Peggy that he seemed to take under his wing. When we complained that the wives of Joe Blow and his buddy were always on the sidelines in the Joe Blow stories, Dr. Imai came up with a homework problem in which the wives were the heroines of the story.

My favorite memory is how Dr. Imai taught me and Peggy how to cook hot dogs using a “suicide cord” (kids, I do not recommend you try this at home!). We took an ordinary lamp cord, cut off at one end and with a plug on the other. We split the cord into two for maybe 6-8 inches. We then stripped the cut ends to expose the metal wire within. Those metal wires were each wrapped around a 10-penny nail (near the head of the nail). With the cord unplugged we poked the nails through either end of a hot dog. We then plugged in the cord and voila! the electrical current cooked the hot dog. Peggy and I actually started a modest hot dog concession in the physics lab, selling hot dogs and soda to students and TAs.

Dr. Imai and I kept in touch off and on in the years since I graduated. I still have the wedding gift he gave me thirty years ago (at left). More recently, he requested some of my romance novels both for a friend of his and himself. As best I can tell, we last corresponded in December 2010, when I told him about my new granddaughter. I also mentioned that I would have a science fiction book, Tankborn, coming out. He said in response, “as you may recollect, science fiction is one of my favorite subject areas. I take it that TANKBORN is your chosen title. You can put me down for an order of a copy.”

Now I know he died months before Tankborn came out in September 2011. I wish now that I could have sent him an advance copy. I would have been so proud to know he’d read it.

If you want to know more about Dr. James Imai, do a Google search. He was a remarkable man.

Note: Thanks to Leslie Ogg, Dr. Imai’s longtime companion, for the correction on Joe’s last name and for his buddy’s name.

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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2 Responses to Physics Professor Extraordinaire

  1. Reading this 6 years later and it still makes me emotional. What a great tribute – thank you. I’m married to his middle son, Jon, who went back to school after his Dad passed and will be graduating this May with plans to teach. I’m so happy you were affected by his Dad I’m such a profound way. Thank you again!

    • karensandler says:

      Thanks so much for commenting, Haydee. It’s good to hear from someone who knew Dr. Imai. I still think of him and really wish he was still around to chat with. He was a great teacher and I bet Jon will be great as well.

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