What follows is excerpted from a eulogy offered by Nikolic’s longtime colleague and friend Bulent Atalay, UMW professor emeritus of physics.
When Nick Nikolic passed away, he was 84, and he had spent exactly half his life in Fredericksburg, 33 of those [from 1969 to 2002] as a professor of physics at Mary Washington.
He was a brilliant physicist, and his undergraduate academic record at the University of Belgrade has never been surpassed. Physicist Charlie Townes, who later received a Nobel Prize in physics for the invention of the laser, invited Nick to Columbia University to pursue a doctorate in physics, and he accepted.
A native of Belgrade, Nick never returned to the country of his birth.
The former Yugoslavia’s loss would be America’s gain.
Among physicists, Nick saw Newton as the king. He was not impressed by Einstein, although he knew Einstein’s general theory of relativity better than any other experimentalist I’ve met. But perhaps beyond any scientist of the 20th century, he admired Paul Dirac, who gave us quantum mechanics as we know it.
The most colorful and most unforgettable character in my 43 years at Mary Washington, Nick was also the most intellectually honest – and certainly the most quotable. At his retirement party in 2002, “Nickisms” – compiled with religious fervor by his students over the years – were read out loud. Nick had seen them all as truisms, as throwaway lines. His children simply observed, “He had no filter!”
In a sense, Nick was the ultimate lovable curmudgeon, able to knock conventional icons but surprisingly embracing more subtle ones. He could discuss art, music, philosophy, politics, and, of course, mathematics and physics. He loved classical music; he loved Beethoven, but he hated modern classical music. He loved modern art. That was good, as his wife, Jean, was a pop artist trained at Columbia University, where the two met.
A newspaper reporter called while writing Nick’s obituary and asked for examples of “Nickisms.” I claimed that I could not remember any. The truth was that I could not remember any politically correct, printable “Nickism.”
Later, a former physics student, Michelle Lesko ’92, reminded me of a favorite: “Surely the violins play softly in the background…”
To which she added, “…as he strolled into heaven.”
The world’s loss will be heaven’s gain.