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Interview of E. Leonard Jossem by Patrick McCray on 2001 October 4, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/31711
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Discussion includes childhood and education; his interest in physics and graduate school at Cornell; war work at Los Alamos; reaction to Trinity and Hiroshima; Los Alamos Association of Scientists; Feynman; ethical questions about nuclear weapons; move to Ohio State University and more x-ray physics work; his management style as department chair at OSU; the formationof and his work with the Commission of College Physics; transfer of teaching ideas to other areas of science; training teaching assistants; reaction of other physicists to Jossem's work; involvement with American Association of Physics Teachers; AAPT committee on teacher preparation for elementary and secondary school; his involvement with the International Commission on Physics Education; UNESCO; and physics as a universal language.
Why don’t we start by talking about growing up in Camden, New Jersey.
I grew up in Camden, New Jersey for only four years, and then my folks moved to New York City, the Bronx in particular. My father was a dentist and my mother a nurse. I lived in New York City until I was 19 and then went away to graduate school at Cornell.
Tell me about your childhood. Not to sound like a therapist, but…
I don’t have very strong memories of it. It was kind of uneventful as far as I am concerned. My sister has a much better memories of what went on than I do. Went to PS 79, and then to DeWitt Clinton High School, then to City College. I graduated from there in ’34.
What types of courses, or what were you interested in studying as an undergraduate?
Well, when I was about ten or so, my folks bought me a microscope. I used that to look at all kinds of things. I took pictures, developed my father’s x-ray films. I was a voracious reader. I read practically everything I could get my hands on.
Did you have favorite types of books that you read?
No. It was pretty generic. I guess by the time I was in high school and certainly in college, I developed an interest in folklore of all kinds. I don’t remember very much about anything before college. I just sort of went along, and that was over. Now I could go on to the next thing.
Did you have a sense in high school or starting college that you wanted to go into science, or was that not something that you were… How were you feeling?
Yes. But it was kind of a generalized sense. In college, there was a laboratory course that undergraduates could take, and what I remember about that was that I built a Lenard ray tube and Walter Zinn was the person in charge of the course. He was very helpful when I got in trouble with glass blowing and saved me. A friend of my father’s had an old power supply for an x-ray machine. It was two big insulating things coming up and metal balls, and you could get big sparks between them. He gave that to me, and I managed to take it into the subway and down to City College, and used that for the high voltage source. We got some electrons coming out of there. I have always been a hands-on person. I like to do things and so forth. I guess the other person in my undergraduate work was Mark Zemansky. I took thermodynamics from him the year before his book was published. I think I still have it. But for a long while I had everything that he put on the blackboard, in a sense, his whole book was in notes there. He was an interesting person to talk to. My folks weren’t wealthy, and I went to City College because it was free if you had a high enough average. Then there was the question of what I would do after that.
Did they have any strong feelings one way or another about the type of career that you should do? Did your father want you to be a dentist?
I didn’t really know what it was to be a physicist, or what the employment possibilities were, or anything like that. I just knew that I would like to continue with it. They encouraged me in every way they could. The City College physics department had a prize that they gave out $50. I was looking around to see what I could do with $50, and that was tuition in the graduate school at Cornell for a year at that time. That’s how I ended up going to Cornell.
Were there any other reasons why you chose Cornell?
That was the principal reason. I might have never gone to graduate school if it hadn’t have been for that because my folks were not really in a position to subsidize my further education.
Did you consider any other career possibilities?
No. That was something that appealed to me, and the opportunity was there, and I took it. That’s how I got to Cornell.
Tell me what it was like being at Cornell. You finished your Master’s there in ’39, and then stayed on as an instructor for a while.
Yes. Well, the first year I was there, I did a master’s thesis with Lyman Parrot [?]. This was in x-ray physics. For some of the things that one wanted to do in the research, you wanted to have a very high intensity x-ray tube. So my master’s thesis was on the design and construction of such a tube, and we were reasonably successful in doing that. Then I had a graduate assistantship until Pearl Harbor and everything changed, of course. By that time, I was reasonably along in my Ph.D. thesis, which involved a lot more instrumentation.
Was there something particular about building instrumentation that attracted you?
Yes. As I said, I like to do things, build things.
So you never considered being a theoretical physicist?
No. That’s not my strongest point.
The war interrupted your Ph.D. work, and you also spent a year in New Mexico at Los Alamos. Can you talk about how you ended up at Los Alamos and what you did there?
Yes. Well, Cornell had the V12 and ASTP programs, and a lot of the faculty went off to do more research, including Parrot, who was with the Navy before he went off to Los Alamos. I did a lot of teaching. There was one semester where I taught classes from 8:00 until 12:00 and labs all afternoon, and I think it was two or three evenings a week that the professor in charge of the course and I had help sessions with the students. Then there were papers to grade and everything. Then on the weekends, I tried to push my research a little. That got to be more and more difficult because it was hard to get electronic parts, tubes, and so forth. About a year before I actually went out to Los Alamos, Parrot suggested that I come out and come there, but I wanted to see if I could move ahead some more. By the end of that year, he asked me again, and it had become pretty obvious that it was going to be an awful uphill struggle to get anything done on my thesis at Cornell because things just weren’t developing. So I went out to Los Alamos at their invitation.
Had you been out west before?
How did you react, growing up in New York and New Jersey, and then seeing New Mexico?
Great place. Well, I worked in the bomb physics duration there first. Robert Bacher was head of that. I worked in electronics instrumentation, but Willy Higginbotham was running that part. Then after Trinity, I switched over to advanced developments with Bretcher [?] and we were doing hydrogen cross-sections.
Did you go to the Trinity test?
What was your reaction to it when you heard of the news?
I’m not sure how to answer that question. I’ve had people ask me about these things before, and I find it very difficult to explain to people who weren’t there what the atmosphere was, and how people were thinking about things. After the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and that matter had become public, there was a lot of stuff going on at Los Alamos, Chicago, and Oak Ridge, and so forth. And there was the Los Alamos Association of Scientists. I don’t know how much you know about that.
A little bit. But can you tell me if you were involved with that association?
Yes. Phil Morrison was very much involved in that. I remember at one point early in the game, there was a big meeting of all the technical people in the theater there, and there was considerable debate about what Los Alamos should do, and some people were pushing that we should go ahead and make some statements and do things, and other people were saying, “Well, we’ve really got to work with and consult with Chicago and Oak Ridge, and come out with a more unified statement.” That debate went on for quite a while, and was almost getting heated. The thing I remember most about it was Dick Feynman got up at one point and said, “What we should do? We should do what is right!” And that caused an emotional explosion with the people there. It just is a memory that stayed with me because of the emotional response to that statement.
Can you say more about the emotional response? What were the types of reactions that statement stirred up?
People had a lot of different points of view, and as you know, there was considerable discussion beforehand as to whether or not we should drop the bomb or do an exhibition of what it could do, killing people and so forth. There were all these various points of view. I think the main consideration was to try and get some public understanding of what had happened and what the possibilities and potentials were for the future. There were newsletters put out, and I was involved in some of that. Have you ever seen them?
I haven’t seen those newsletters. No.
I have a collection of them. After I went back to Cornell, I went around and gave talks at various places about what had happened, and where one could see the future going and so forth.
What was your particular viewpoint about what had happened and what should be done in the future?
Well, there were all the arguments about whether the bomb should have been dropped at all, but once it’s dropped, then that’s no longer something that’s arguable because it’s dropped. One can say that the loss of lives that occurred and everything that happened, innocent people who had no direct connection to these things, women and children, etc. One would have preferred not to have that happen, but it did, and the question is where to go from there. There was so much misinformation and so much misunderstanding, and the feeling that this is our secret and nobody can find out anything about it unless we tell them. That kind of lack of understanding of what had happened and where the future might go was something that I think we all felt needed to be dealt with in trying to apprise people of what the situation actually was.
When you were at Cornell before going to Los Alamos, or at Los Alamos, did you interact with people like Hans Bethe at all, who had their own particular viewpoints about things?
More after Los Alamos than before. Did I mention Phil Morrison?
There was a group at Cornell interested in these things.
So after Los Alamos, you returned to Cornell. Did you resume your graduate work?
Yes. After the war, there was lots of money floating around, and they were throwing it at physics. So there was research support, and we had support from the Navy and the Air Force. Parrot[?] got those grants and I was a research associate on them.
So finding funding at this stage right after the war wasn’t that difficult to do?
No. In fact, sometimes you had to say, “Keep your [?] with your funding!” [laughter]
That changed, after all, of course. The whole situation after the war, and particularly after the National Science Foundation came to be, it was money all over the place. Did you look at the copy of the Oersted lecture I sent you?
If you remember the graphs in there…
There is a copy of it here.
After nuclear physics became public property, the emphasis shifted, and it wasn’t until one began to get good strong synchrotron light sources in the x-ray region that interest in x-rays picked up to the extent that it is now used as a tool in all sorts of things. At the time I left Cornell, there were only a few places in the country that were actually doing research in x-ray physics. Charlie Shaw at Ohio State was one of the people, and of course from conferences and other things. I knew practically everybody in the country that was doing work. And a position opened up at Ohio State, and it looked like a good opportunity, so I went there. I had looked around at other possibilities previously, including places like Bell Labs, but decided I wanted to stay with a university.
Why a university versus going to work for an industrial laboratory?
I guess I would say primarily because I liked the atmosphere of being in a university. And I got considerable satisfaction out of teaching.
When you went to Ohio State, did you continue with your x-ray research?
Can you give me some sense of how this type of research was organized? Was it just you working by yourself, or did you have a team of students?
Well, let me go back to Cornell for a minute. Parrot had this group of graduate students who was working with him, and there were two crystal x-ray spectrometers in one room in the middle of the room with a big power supply and work area. In the other room was the bent vine crystal spectrometer that I built and was working with. There were a couple of other graduate students who did their thesis work with Parrot. Why am I blocking people’s names? Joe Platt was one. By the way, he’s a very interesting person, and if you could get him to do an oral history, I think you would find that interesting. He, of course, is retired now, but he is still out in California at Harvey Mudd University. Then there were a couple of other people who got their degrees there, but over the time I was there, maybe half a dozen people. I was the one who worked building and using the bent vine crystal spectrometer, and the others that there were on the two crystal spectrometers. At that time, theoretical solid state physics was still growing, and the things everyone can do now were not possible for whatever different reasons. The theory wasn’t developed, and computational things like great computers…So a lot of what was being done was accumulating data, experimental data, and trying to make some guesses from what you could see there as to what was going on. I looked at the chlorine spectrum and the various alkaline chlorides as to what difference does it make to the chlorine and the absorption spectra to bring a change from sodium to potassium. So that was what was going on at Cornell. At Ohio State, Charlie Shaw had an x-ray spectrometer going, and also some work in x-ray scattering, low temperature scattering. He had some students working with him on those things. I got some grants that enabled me to build a two crystal spectrometer, a vacuum spectrometer, and a lot of time went into getting that built. I had a few students who did some work on that. They are now retired. Then in 1969, Shaw and his wife were in an automobile accident. They were driving a Volkswagen Beetle, and a sixteen-year old in a Cadillac collided with them. Shaw was killed and his wife was severely injured.
So I saw his students through their work. We had a laboratory in the Mendenhall Laboratory on campus. You don’t probably know the geometry of the OSU campus.
I’ve only been there twice, but I was there about 18 months ago to visit somebody in the astronomy department, so I have a rough sense.
Do you know the Yellow Hall?
Next to the Bell Tower, that was Mendenhall Lab. We had our labs there in the basement of Mendenhall. We stayed there until the last section of the new physics building was built in ’69. All of the students that had been with Shaw and with me finished their work because they didn’t want to disrupt the lab decorum. At that time, I was chairman of the Department, and I was under considerable pressure to vacate that space. So I didn’t have any students there, and things were just picked up and moved from one place to the other. It’s the old business about saying that moving is worse than having a fire. All the stuff was just helter-skelter in the rooms. Again, I was chairman of the Department at that time, and I was more involved in physics educational series, so the experimental research and x-rays just got kind of put off to one side. We’re not going about this in an entirely clear chronological order, but if you don’t mind skipping around.
We’ll come back. Before I talk about the Commission on College Physics, I wanted to ask you about your time as department chair, which is getting things out of order. But since you mentioned it, while you were the Department chair, did you have any pre-disposition to focusing research on one area versus another?
Only in the sense of trying to improve the status of the Department with respect to benchmark other departments. I think things were changing, and it was sort of the middle part of a steep growth curve. Before I came in as chair, the chairman was Harold Nielson, who had been chairman for 20 years. During the first few years of that, he was quite ill, and the work of running the Department was mainly done by other people. And there were things going on there that I would rather not talk about, but when I came in, I tried to arrange things so that the whole department was involved in what went on, and so I could improve the collegiality of the situation.
After the war, the physics community became more subdivided with solid state, high energy, and particle physics. Was that also reflected in the Physics department at Ohio State in terms of people forming small sub-groups within the Department?
Yes. I don’t really know, but Ohio State was very strong in molecular spectroscopy, and they hold a conference on molecular spectroscopy at Ohio State to this day, and I think it’s 30 or so years old or more. Nielson was a part of that, and K.N. Rao ran it for many years until he retired. It attracts physicists and chemists and anyone who does molecular spectroscopy.
Why did Ohio State build and develop such a program in molecular spectroscopy?
That goes back to considerably before my time, and I’m not sure I know the answer to that question. It was strong in molecular spectroscopy when I got there. They had been having these conferences, and there is a history of it, and in fact, I might mention the person who was chairman before Nielson was A.W. Smith. He was chairman of the Department for 20 years, and the dean of the graduate school for most of that time as well. He wrote a history of the Department, which is about that thick.
So a pretty lengthy history then.
Yes. And it goes to probably the late ‘60s or so, from the beginning. I don’t know if that’s of any interest to you, but if you are interested, then I could get a copy for you.
I think what might be useful is whenever we prepare the transcript, to at least put the title, the author, and the date so somebody else reading this would be able to track that down. That would be helpful. So when you were serving as department chair, how would you characterize your managerial style? How did you run things?
Pretty much hands on, but I tried to create an atmosphere in which people could get their work done. When I came in, the year I came in, Ohio State had gotten a new president, Harold Fawcett, and he had a master’s degree in physics. He had been superintendent of the schools in Columbus, Ohio before he had become president of Ohio State. It’s a reflection of the attitude of the Columbus Dispatch that when he came in they wrote an editorial commenting his appointment as president saying, “Now Ohio State can get back to its work of being grades 13, 14, 15, and 16.” But he was very favorably inclined towards physics, and we were treated as a full department, and we were supported reasonably well financially while he was the president. So there was money to help people get on developing the research and so on. I just tried to see that things were made easy for them to do that.
Did you have students working with you at this point as well, when you were chairman?
I became chairman in ’67, and there were still students working in Mendenhall finishing up work and so forth. Right after that, no. I got where I had been involved in the Commission of College Physics, and other things kept coming up.
Let’s talk about the Commission of College Physics. Our archivist pulled a file out, which strangely enough, I think you donated the material because it has your name and mailing address on it.
As a matter of fact, you have all the files on the Commission of College Physics in the Bohr Library.
There is a lengthy finding aid here that lists all the things.
Let me tell you a bit about that. In the decade in which the National Science Foundation supported all the various commissions in physics and chemistry and biology and so forth. When that was over, there were lots and lots of filing cases full of commission stuff. It was considered at that time useful to want a place to store that it wasn’t just all put through the shredder. Since I was chairman I found some space for it at Ohio State. Then after I stopped being chairman and some years later when they were changing things around they said, “We need this space.” So I talked with AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) and Bohr Library, and said, “How would you like all this stuff?” I think there were six or seven filing cabinets and a whole bunch of cardboard boxes of material that were sent down here, and that’s how it arrived here.
That’s good because it’s such a complete collection and that’s important. I don’t know much about the Commission of College Physics. Can you tell me what its purpose was, and why it was founded in the first place?
Well, the people in the National Science Foundation felt a need to support and advance teaching of science in a number of different disciplines. And so I essentially asked the various professional societies, and in the case of physics the AAPT, to set up organizations whose primary function was to encourage the collaboration of people in developing new education materials, and seeing that they got disseminated and so forth. They did that in physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, geology. I don’t remember an exact number, but there were seven or eight different college commissions on this and that. It was first set up at Bryn Mawr with Walter Michael. And I forget the name of the person who was the first secretary, but I think after a year or so he left and Ed Lamb became the Executive Secretary. I got an invitation from Walter to join them as what they called staff physicist. And we got a year at Bryn Mawr. Then it was moved to Michigan, and I think partly because Dick Crane was there. I spent another year as the Executive Secretary. Ed had gone back to other things.
How was it decided where to move it, or where to put it in the first place? Or was it just dependent on the people. You mentioned Dick Crane was at Michigan, so it went there.
Yes. I think it was at Bryn Mawr because that’s where Walter Michael was. So then I left and went back to Ohio State. I’d have to check the facts, but I think it was then that John Fowler took it over and stayed with it until the end.
Yes. The newsletters that are in this folder have Fowler listed. Let me just pull one of those out. This is one from May 1967. Yes. John Fowler is the Director, and then a variety of different people, including yourself. There’s Crane at Michigan. Okay.
And a year or so after I left, they asked me to be Chairman of the Commission, and I accepted that and remained as chairman until the Commission was disbanded.
Was funding for this provided by the National Science Foundation?
Okay. What year was the Commission on College Physics established?
If I remember correctly, it was around 1960. In the American Journal of Physics, there are a number of special issues, reports on the Commission of College Physics. And that will give you the complete history of everything that was done, all the admissions and so forth.
Was the Commission established as a response to Sputnik, and just the concern over America’s position in the sciences?
I think it was a step that the Commissions as a whole were established as a result of the reaction to, “We need more people in the sciences.” And that we need to teach them better was also part of that.
So not only needing more young people going into sciences, but also instructing…
Making sure that they were well taught.
You were Executive Secretary in 1964-65. What does the Executive Secretary do?
Sort of like Bernie Khoury. That is I was the day-to-day person in charge of what went on day to day. Policies and so forth were set by the members of the board of the Commission. We sponsored various conferences, and had people write reports, and just day-to-day overseeing the work of the Commission was what was involved in that.
What were the most important issues that the Commission was dealing with in terms of changing how physics was taught?
To a certain extent, trying to get people to think outside the box, to explore new and different ways of presenting materials, and helping people learn the beginnings of multimedia. One example of that is the conference that took place in Seattle in the summer of ’65, if I remember correctly. It was called “Instruction by Design.” Ed Lamb and John Fowler were very much the movers and there was a report of it, which I’m sure is somewhere in those files, but it tried to bring together physicists and designers of various kinds, film people, to see if I could get them to work together to get them to produce something different and attractive to people and helpful in the learning process. There was an experiment. It was preceded the previous summer by a much smaller group at Aspen — it was sort of a planning group for the Seattle conference. Alan Holden from Bell Labs was strongly involved in both of these. Do you know much about him?
No I don’t.
He, among other things, has the Millikan Medal I believe from AAPT. His Millikan address has been printed in AAPT, worth reading just as some insight into what kind of person he was. He was a very inventive guy, and he had an appreciation for the beauty of things that is not frequently found among people in technical physics.
Can you say more about that?
You should read his paper. That will give you a better explanation than anything I can provide. I can send you the exact reference if you want.
I can track it down. Did the Commission of College Physics recommend any substantial changes to the physics curriculum in terms of the courses that were taught?
Yes. There were the so-called Ann Arbor conferences which looked at the curriculum changes. Out of that, among other things, grew the Princeton Conference on Curriculum S. I think there are copies of the reports of the Ann Arbor conferences in the Commission Collection. The report on the Princeton Conference on Curriculum S is in AJP (American Journal of Physics). The people recognized that you didn’t necessarily want to have the same kind of instruction for people who were, let’s say, hard core physicists as for people who wanted to use physics to just increase their general knowledge, and for other general things that they might be doing. So there was talk at the Ann Arbor Conference about a Curriculum R for research, which was aimed to give people who were going to be research physicists the best introduction to physics and physics research that one could come up with at the time. The other was for a Curriculum S, where S stood for “synthesis.” At the Princeton Conference they came up with I think three different curricula. They are all described in that paper. Nothing happened about that for a long time, but recently Ken Ford and Dick Hake have been talking about Curriculum S, and Dick Hake especially has been pushing his ideas about it. Do you know him?
No. I don’t.
He’s the guy who invented what’s now called the Hake Factor as a measure of how much students learn in a course. Essentially, students are given a pre-test at the beginning of a course, then they are given a test at the end of the course, and the data from that is used to say what percentage of the material that they didn’t know but you would like them to know did they actually learn? There are various papers on that. But nothing much happened about that, and I think the reason is because we were still in an exponential expansion. People could get away with, I don’t want to say neglecting teaching, but not having to worry about it too much because you are in a rising curve of support for research, and every physics department was pushing to improve its status. Become the next Caltech or Harvard. So there was interest in physics education, problems it was facing, but it was going up alongside very strong support.
Was there any disagreement about the types of courses that should be included in Curriculum R or Curriculum S?
Well, I’ll tell you a story. When Robert Resnick retired from the RPI, they’d had a conference in celebration of his career. The reports of that conference have been published. One of the things that happened there is that people were at that time also concerned with the fact that there was just too much to put in the course, and that we were making students buy his books, and half of it they never used. So there was a big and very representative audience at this conference, and they divided the lecture hall into four lots. They said, “You two think about what you would absolutely put into a course, and you two think about what you could take out of the course.” And they went at it for a while, and the four people supposed to report. It came down to one person saying, “Well, we should take out the Second Law of Thermodynamics.” Another person saying, “You can’t take out the Second Law of Thermodynamics. I teach my whole course from the Second Law.” And there was no agreement, or very little agreement on these things.
Was there anything that everybody agreed should be taken out?
No. At least not that I remember. A couple of weeks later, I was in China at a conference there, and I thought it would be fun to find out how the Chinese thought about this. So I said that we had done this experiment, but I didn’t say anything about the results. But I said, “I wonder if you would be willing to try and do this here.” So we did it there. Exactly the same results as we’d gotten.
So what does that say about physics instruction?
It says that still to a great degree, it’s aimed at people who are going to become physicists. That there is a recognition that that’s not true of everybody, and some concessions have been made on that, and we do have courses which do not require calculus, some courses which don’t require much algebra. But when you hear senior faculty members saying, “The only people worth teaching physics to are those who are going to become Ph.D. physicists,” then you know that the physics community has a problem. And there are people who say this, and they are in senior positions at research universities.
Is there a distinction between where the student is? You spent most of your career at a large research university. How would the perspective of somebody in your department compare with somebody at Denison, for example?
Well, you talked to Rod Grant on this. But, of course, he’s also an atypical person.
In four year colleges, even perhaps more so in the three year colleges, attitudes are different. A lot of the physics education research work that is being done these days is done at four year colleges or smaller universities, in general with smaller faculties. One of the things that makes a difference is the manner of preparation of teachers. About 40 percent of the people who teach physics in high school get their physics in two year colleges, and not many people are aware of that. The big research universities, there are physics education and research groups in those places. But there is the University of Washington at Seattle with Lillian McDermott and her group, and there is Joe Redish at Maryland, and there is our group at Ohio State. There are three or four other universities in which such things go on. But if you are talking about senior people in the field, you have a problem because the distribution of people in the field is bimodal, and the senior people you can practically count on your fingers of one hand. There are a lot of graduate students and post-docs and new assistant professors coming into the field, and they are spread out around the country. But most of them are by themselves or maybe with one other person. So physics education research is a field that is beginning to grow rapidly, but it’s still very young. In places where that sort of thing goes on, there are at least some people who are not devoting their lives to technical physics research but rather to trying to come to an understanding of how students learn and how one can best help them to learn.
When you were chairman of the Commission of College Physics, what were the major issues that you were dealing with at that time?
I think the best thing I can say is to refer you to the reports on the Commission of College Physics. I think they were ’62, ’64, ’66, ’68, around there. In the first place, my memory isn’t as good as it never was. And I have a very good memory for some things, but not for others. The history is all there, and it is pretty well organized, and you can see the things that people were talking about.
Let me rephrase it another way in terms of your own experience. What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment while you were chair?
Get things moving, help people do the things that the Commission was doing. I have adopted the saying, having served on many committees and commissions and everything, that a good chairman gets other people to do the work. Sometimes that’s more difficult than you might imagine.
How did you persuade other people to do the work? What was your secret?
I don’t know.
It must have worked.
Yes. But very often, you do things without knowing exactly what you are doing, why people react the way they do. People have honored me in various ways, and most recently, actually at the summer commencement at Ohio State, I had this award for distinguished service in the University, and it’s always nice to receive such awards, but my feeling was I was just doing my job. So I have to let other people talk about how I influenced them, because I’m not exactly sure.
Okay. As you have been working on physics education, have you been interested in taking what you have learned for improving physics education and transferring it to other areas of science? Has that been something that has been done?
One of the things that comes out of the research on physics education is the extent to which it is context dependent. The things that you do in physics, some of them have more general applicability, but others are fairly specific to physics. If you take things like the idea of students having alternate conception about things, meaning they don’t come in as blank slates, they have an experience of the world and they have ideas about how things work, and those ideas may or may not be what you would like them to have. The idea that that’s the case with students, and if you want to make headway in helping them to learn, you have to recognize that and you have to understand that their concepts may be quite different from yours, and that that’s not always obvious on the surface of them. There is a lot of research which validates that point of view, and I think that’s a kind of general point of view, which can carry over into other areas, particularly in the sciences. But a lot of it, when you ask, “What do you do about students’ ideas about quantum mechanics,” that doesn’t necessarily carry over to people who are majoring in entomology. Aside from you have to find out what the students know, but if you don’t start from where they are, you’re going to have a hard time. There are little things, for example, an elementary school student who said, “The sun is a star, but it knows how to turn into the sun in the daytime.” Think about what was in that little girl’s mind when she made that remark. It tells you a lot about what you have to deal with. Bruce Sherwood told me a story about a student who took an exam, and one of the questions was that there was a neutron star, and it has a mass of so much and a radius of so much, and to calculate it’s density. And the student comes up to the instructor after the exam and says, “You know, I know that to calculate the density — you take the ratio of mass to volume; and I know how to get a volume if I have a radius, but I didn’t know which radius to use.” Bruce said, “What do you mean you didn’t know what radius to use?” “Well, you said it was a star.” [laughs]
A five point star. What do you do?
That a student would think about it in that way would probably never occur to you.
No. Especially if you are a physics teacher, a star is a round thing, a sphere.
That’s our simple model of a star. That’s so we don’t have to worry about what radius to take.
Tell me about how your thinking about training teaching assistants has changed. I know one of the papers that you sent to me was about that particular topic. I am curious to know what you could add to what you already sent to us.
Well, one of the comments I got when this was published, actually, was from one of the reviewers, was that he thought it wasn’t as user friendly as it might have been. And I think by that, he meant that I didn’t give any detailed prescription for running a program for teaching graduate students. But I don’t know how to give a prescription for running such a program. Because again, I think it’s very context dependent — you do different things with different students. What I tried to do in the paper was to make that point, and to give references to papers which discuss various of the parts that might go into a program, but which would necessarily be arranged to fit the particular circumstances of the institution and the students who were there. We have research universities in this country where 80 percent of the students are from other countries. And we have other research universities where only 10 or 20 percent of the students are from other countries. In one class, don’t do the same thing as you do in another class. I think you have to sit down and figure out what it is you want to try and do, who are you dealing with, and how you talk to them, and how do you get them to look at things in an additional viewpoint, other than the one they already have? Students who have come from other countries have grown up under quite different systems. They know the physics, but they don’t know the social situations in which they find themselves, or not very much about the students with whom they have to deal. But even American citizens who have come into graduate school from having gone through undergraduate training in this country, they’ve gone through a training which was designed to produce more Ph.D. physicists, and if you are putting them in a class where they have to teach people who are arts majors, for the most part they don’t know how to deal with it. But how you help them along that route is not something for which you can write a prescription. So that and the idea that it always has been, but nowadays it’s clearly recognized as a responsibility of physics departments to instruct people in physics who are not going to be physicists. They are 95 percent of the people taking introductory courses in physics.
I’m curious about the reaction that your work has received from your colleagues in the physics world. How have they responded to your interest in promoting research in physics education?
Which colleagues are you talking about?
People who are not involved in physics education. Just ordinary, to use the word loosely, physicists. What I’m trying to get at is sometimes people in science who focus on education or in popularizing science are looked down upon by the “real” scientists, and I was wondering if you had ever experienced this in your dealings with physicists.
Well, I would say that it may well be that I have that, but I haven’t been aware of it. I am aware of the attitudes that many people have. I quoted earlier that one guy saying, “The only people worth teaching physics to are the ones that are going to be Ph.D. physicists.” I think it’s a question in the individual case. I don’t think you can make broad statements about it. I think it goes to the individual case. You take somebody, for example, like Eric Mazur. You’ve probably read his account of how he got converted, that he was moved to see whether it was really true if his students were learning what he was teaching them, and found it wasn’t, and that was his epiphany, and he was a good enough physicist and researcher to recognize when things weren’t working, and to try to find a way to make them work better. There are a lot of people who are still convinced that what they do is just fine, and who are really not anxious to take the challenge of finding out whether that’s so, partly I think because their interests are in other directions, partly because they feel if they did find out, they would have to do something about it, and they don’t want to take the time or considerable effort to change the way they do things. On the other hand, we have had people, mainly among the younger people, but not always, who are more open minded and who are willing to look at things from another point of view and recognize the value that they may have with the instructional process and so forth.
You have been involved with the American Association of Physics Teachers for a long time. And you have been on a number of committees, and I can’t ask you questions about all of those, so I thought I would just keep my questions limited to the times in which you were vice president, president, and past president, which is about a five year period. What was happening in the AAPT at that time that you recall?
That was around ’70…
It was ’71 through about ’75.
Do you remember the economic status of the country at that time?
Not so good.
Not so good. That has a big effect on things. But even so, if you look at the curve of growth, we were still going up always exponentially. The emphasis was largely on research in physics departments around the country, and the kinds of ideas about how to do research in physics education were nowhere near being born at that time. People’s feelings about educational process were generally the views of that time. There were things like the Ann Arbor Conference and the Seattle Conference and the Princeton Conference, in which relative small numbers of people are involved, and where you go to a conference and you go back home, and it’s very hard to change things. When it means changing curricula in particular, changing modes of instruction, those things are very hard to change, still now.
I guess were there any — Similar to a question I asked earlier, when you were president of AAPT, was there anything that was happening or that you did that you felt particularly proud about or upset about that you wish it would have gone differently?
There probably were. I’m not sure I remember any.
That’s not a bad thing.
I tend not to get too excited about either the ups or the downs. It’s easier to go off track either way.
I have one final question, and this is one that I ask everybody that I interview. During the course of your career, what do you think has been the single biggest change in physics?
The fact, as I mentioned the Oersted lecture, that the American Physical Society decided that we needed a Unity of Physics Day, and to me, when someone says that we needed a Unity of Physics Day, they do it because they recognize how splintered things are. The tremendous explosion in what we know about the physical world, and the detailed exploration of all the various parts of physics has led to a fractionalization of the whole field. When I went into graduate work, you could pretty much understand what other physicists were doing. That’s become much more difficult when you have — The American Physical Society is now, in my view, the divisions of the American Physical Society. And they go off and do their own thing.
So they don’t talk to each other all that much, and I think that’s true today. I know when the faculty talks about it, they lament the fact that not all of the faculty come to the weekly colloquiums that we have if the talk doesn’t happen to be in their area. And the Commission is how do you get more people to come to the colloquium? We all call ourselves physicists, but I think we have a hard time conducting ourselves to all the various things that are going on, simply because there is so damn much of it. The creeping green plague (referring to the growth in amount of publications) continues to expand, and I still subscribe to Physics Review Letters, and I get it online rather than having the green plague fill up my office. I have no space for it anyhow. But I look at what comes out and try and keep myself at least minimally informed about what is going on in other areas of physics, and how can I use anything I find there in what I’m doing. But I don’t know the extent to which that’s true to the general physics population. People are no longer throwing money at you. You have to go and ask for it. The fraction of proposals that actually get funded is not anywhere near as large as it used to be. And so there are strong pressures on people to get on with their own work. One can understand why they don’t spend a lot of time figuring out what other people are doing or its relevancy. But it’s really almost too much to ask because of the tremendous extent of new information that keeps floating in every day.
I don’t have any further questions, but if there is anything you would like to add, or if there is anything that you feel is important that we haven’t talked about, please say so.
Well, last July or so, AAPT started a new committee on teacher preparation, and they asked me to be chairman. That’s another really big area where problems are practically insolvable. So we’ve got a good committee, but we’re just getting started, and that is taking away a lot of the attention at this point.
What are the major problems?
You mean you don’t know what’s going on in elementary and secondary education in the sciences?
I’d like to hear your version of it.
Particularly at the elementary and middle school levels, people come into positions for which they do not have adequate training, they have heavy workloads, they have very little chance for professional development, and what goes on in the elementary and secondary levels has a big effect on what happens to people after that. There is also the question of the imminent retirement of lots of people in those areas, and how do you replace them? There are a lot of things that have been going on where people have had good intentions, but where there have been unintended consequences. I’ll just mention one. There is the Holmes Group. A group of colleges and universities got together and said in effect that we will no longer have undergraduate programs in education. We will ask that students major in some field in which they are interested, and then come to us as graduate students for their master’s degree or whatever, and we will bring them up to speed on the educational and instructional aspects of what they are expected to do, but they will have had a major in a subject, so we don’t have to worry about the content, and we’ll just worry about the pedagogy aspect. Ohio State joined the Holmes group. Before that, when there was an undergraduate program, we had a way of finding out who the people were that were interested in being elementary, middle school, or high school teachers, and saying, “Hey. We’ve got this nice course in physics that we think you would like, and could be useful and interesting to you. And we invite you to come over and see for yourself. Take the course.” But since there is no longer an undergraduate program in education, we have no way of knowing who we can send this invitation to. So we still give the course, it’s generally not populated by people who have the intent of being elementary or middle school teachers, because in general people who want to go into those areas don’t want to major in physics. So that has been a problem.
Has that reduced the number of elementary or secondary school physics teachers then, consequently?
Yes. They are in short supply. Now, you might have heard that APS, AIP, and AAPT are joined in this tech program. They have six schools that are starting out in this. And I was here for their second annual meeting last week. That is interesting business. But when you look at the number of people that group can conceivably influence as against the total number of people out there that can stand that kind of training, it’s a small fraction. We have a situation in the country where the President of the United States (G. W. Bush (“C”) self-professed student at Yale) reminds people that you can be a C student and still become President of the United States. That says something about the attitude towards education in this country, which I find very discouraging. So I’ll put in one or two cents and do what I can to prevent the situation from getting any worse. So that’s what I’ve currently gotten involved in. One other thing we didn’t say much about was the International Commission on Physics Education.
I didn’t ask questions about that because I know nothing about it.
Do you want me to tell you?
The International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, which has been going on since the 22nd, is the premier institution for setting physics standards and international operation of physics in the world. It’s one of the principle international unions in the sciences. In 1960, they established a Commission on Physics Education, and that has, as do all the other IUPAP commissions, a chair, a vice chair, and secretary, and ten members, thirteen in all. These people are elected to their commissions at meetings of general assembly of IUPAP, which occurs every three years. People are proposed for membership in the various commissions by liaison committees in various countries, although IUPAP would rather not recognize national boundaries, and if somebody wants to apply for membership in IUPAP, it’s the physics community in the particular geographic location that is doing this, although it’s usually done through the National Academy of Science in the country that is involved. So the International Commission on Physics Education has a mandate which you can find on the IUPAP web site. Judy Franz from APS is now the associate secretary general of IUPAP. It’s mainly to encourage the development of new aspects of physics education, and the dissemination of material of all the countries of the world and so forth. Nobody gets paid for it, and as is the case with most volunteer organizations, the quality of the membership goes up and down. The principal activities are in encouraging conferences of various kinds. It acts as a screening group for the executive board of IUPAP, in that it recommends to IUPAP whether IUPAP should sponsor the conference, and if it does, whether it should contribute some financial support to the conference. The reason it makes any difference to anybody whether or not they have IUPAP support is that IUPAP is recognized in every country as being an appropriate validating organization for the particular conference. If IUPAP sponsors it, it is a lot easier for them to get government support.
So it provides a blessing, if you will, that the conference is okay, and it can go.
Yes. General assembly meetings are highly political.
How many people would be at the general assembly meeting?
There are about 46 countries in IUPAP. I’m not sure what the current number is. Judy can tell you. They each send a delegation, which may be five or six people.
So roughly about 300 people would be there?
Yes. They’ve just undergone a change in the structure of the organization within the last couple of years. Again, all of that information is on the IUPAP web site.
You got first involved with it around 1982 or 1981, and you were the chair from ’86 to ’93. So again, the same line of questions with all the other organizations that we’ve talked about. What were some of the major issues that you were dealing with?
Low-cost laboratory construction programs. A lot of the countries involved are not rich countries, like Egypt, for example, India, China…That’s one thing. New instructional methods, multimedia… One of the things that came up while I was chair was the question of there is research in physics education, but it is uneasy to get to the practitioners. So the Commission commissioned a book connecting the research in physics education to physics teaching. Two people who were members of the Commission, Andre Tieberghien of France, and Jorge Berojas in Mexico undertook to get people from around the world to write papers for this book. The book is on the web site in English and also in French. The French came in only very recently, and in addition is being prepared by Spanish speaking people. So my friends in Brazil have threatened to do a Portuguese version.
Are there any other countries that are especially good in educating people to be physics teachers?
There are a number of studies about what is going on in Europe and in comparing the programs in various countries. A lot of that is on the web. One of the things the Commission did, and Paul Black undertook to take the lead in this, was to look at the nature of entrance examinations to universities in various countries. That was funded by UNESCO and came out as a UNESCO report.
I see you were a member of Working Group Three.
That is an interesting story.
I don’t know what Working Group Three is.
It was about physics education. A lot of this you will find on the IUPAP web site. If you want to go into details, talk to Judy Franz. She was also a member of that group. We had meetings in Russia where we were told it was the duty of every other country to support physics in Russia because otherwise it would go down the tubes. Some people were really passionate about that. The person who met up with a Japanese physicist and things just sort of petered out. A lot of money was spent in bringing people to meetings in various places, and there wasn’t very much that came out. It was disappointing, but not entirely unexpected.
Is there one particular anecdote or story that you could tell that would be representative of your experience with IUPAP and the Commission on Physics Education during the time of your involvement? Or one that stands out in your mind?
I think aside from the business of encouraging people to attend our conferences, one of the people who proceeded me as chair was a physicist from Vienna named Uli Sexel. When he was chair, he was a very proactive guy, and he decided certain things were useful and did them. In particular, he decided it would be good to have a physics education conference on high energy physics. He knew some people at CERN, and he went and talked to them and set up a conference, and there it was. He had some very serious health problems. Here I was secretary of the Commission during that time, and he had been operated on for a brain tumor, and against the advice of everybody, he came to a commission meeting, and people were really worried about him because he wasn’t doing very well. He had driven there from Vienna, and people were saying he shouldn’t drive back, “Oh, Len is coming with me.” If you have ever been on the Autobahn, and the person driving the car is going at a speed which exceeds most of the cars on the Autobahn and complaining of headaches, there were times when I just shut my eyes. We got to Vienna okay. The day after we got there, he was in a coma.
That’s very serious.
And he died from it. The tumor came back again. But he was a remarkable person, and really strongly influenced what was going on during the time he was with the Commission. One other thing the Commission did was to support what has been called the La Londe Conference. The report of that conference has been published. It was, in a sense, the first international conference on physics education research. We’ve been talking for a long time about having a second La Londe Conference. The nearest thing to that that has happened is the conference that you had here at Maryland a number of years ago, which is an AIP conference. But things have come a long way since most of those conferences. The other thing the Commission does is to bring together people from different countries and have them talk to each other and get to know each other as people and establish links of communication. I have personally found that very good and interesting. I have honorary professorships in a couple of Chinese universities.
I noticed that.
I know people in Japan, and in a number of other countries. I was for UNESCO in Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Just seeing what other people are doing, and how they do it and how they think about those things has been very useful and inspiring.
Can you give me an example of something that has been particularly inspiring?
Just the feeling that one gets that physics is a universal language. My Chinese friends have textbooks in physics that are all written in Chinese, except for the graphs and the formulas. I can look at the books, and I can’t read any Chinese, but I know exactly what they are talking about there. Somebody was saying the other day that he had made a trip to China and was having tea with some other people and the interpreter hadn’t arrived, and people were just sitting around sort of looking at their shoes. And he got a card out of his pocket and wrote F = MA and he held it up to them, and everyone was hugging, “A physicist!” Everyone finds they have the same problems, too. There was a time that I was in Thailand, taken around to visit various places, and I was talking to this one instructor who was showing me around the labs and things they were doing, and I was telling him about misconceptions on the part of students, and mentioned this one about you have a lens which is producing an image of something on a screen, and you cover half the lens, what happens? I told him students were saying half the image disappeared. And there was a reaction which has sort of become typical in certain ways. He said, “Well, I don’t know about your students, but that would never happen with our students.” And by chance, we were in this library where students were doing exactly that experiment. So I said, “Do you mind if I ask the students some questions?” “No. Please go ahead.” So I said, “Suppose I take this card and cover half the lens, what will happen to the image?” The students consulted among themselves for a minute and they came up with the answer, “Half the image will disappear.” And I looked at him and he looked at me, and he said, “Well, maybe you better tell me some more about this.” That’s just one trivial example that physics and physicists have a lot in common.
Thank you very much.