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Interview of Thomas D. Rossing by Andy Morrison on 2007 June 7,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/38284
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In this interview Thomas Rossing discusses topics such as: his childhood; undergraduate work at Luther College; graduate work at Iowa State University; working with Sperry Rand; teaching at St. Olaf College; Peter Fossum; Northern Illinois University; solid state physics; magnetics; musical acoustics; Uno Ingard; Art Benade; visiting professorships at University of Edinburgh and Stanford University; Acoustical Society of America (ASA); president and time with the American Association of Physics Teachers (AAPT).
We’re here today, the 7th of June 2007, in Salt Lake City. I am Andy Morrison. I am here with Tom Rossing, and we are going to be conducting an interview for an oral history project. To let you know, I do have quite a list of questions, so if we don’t finish before the social I may have to come and visit you at some time. Is that all right?
So you’re originally from a small town in Minnesota, is that right?
Yes, very small. I call it Lake Wobegone, Minnesota, but it’s really Sacred Heart, Minnesota.
Was that a town full of Norwegian bachelor farmers?
It certainly was.
What was it like growing up there?
It was fun. We missed a lot of opportunities, but we had a lot of other things that we could do.
Did you grow up on a farm?
No, my father was a Lutheran minister in this small town.
I think you told me that you once worked on a farm, is that true?
Oh yes, summers I did a lot of farm work. I was very good doing manual labor, and by the end of the summer I was all ready to go back to school.
What was your school like when you were growing up?
It was very, very small. I think my graduating class had something like 20 people in it.
Did you have any teachers that were particularly influential in your early education?
Oh yes, we had some very good teachers. We also had some problems because this was wartime. I remember my senior year the physics teacher got drafted, and I think the class was taught by a retired history teacher who bragged about knowing nothing about physics. She pretty much turned the class over to me, and I think sometimes that’s why I became a physics teacher!
That’s fascinating! I’d never heard that. That’s amazing. So that reminds me, I’ve heard some things similar to that in small towns. I guess some things don’t change, teachers go on like that.
One nice feature of it was that we could be into everything. Sports — I never would have made the varsity squad at a decent-sized high school, but every able-bodied boy in the school was on the football and basketball team, and in the play, and I was in debate and in the band and everything.
I’m going to come back to it being wartime in a little bit, so we’ll hold onto that. When did you know that you were going to attend college? Was it something that you always sort of knew?
Oh yeah, I think that was predestined. There weren’t too many college graduates in my small town, but of course my father was one of them, having studied theology.
You said that you knew a lot of physics in high school already, that you were practically teaching the class. How did you decide to study physics in college?
I was always interested in how things worked and taking things apart and so on. Really when I went off to college I didn’t have any idea what I’d major in, but I took math and physics because I was interested in them.
Did you start college in 1946, is that correct?
That’s correct, yes.
Did the Manhattan Project influence your desire to study physics at all in any way?
Not really. I wasn’t really aware of that until quite well along in my studies.
I was wondering if you could speak a little bit about what life was like at Luther College, a small college in another small town, but this time in Iowa. So what was life like at Luther College while you were there?
I stated college in 1946, and that of course was the year that the flood of GIs came back, so I think two-thirds of our freshman class was returning GIs.
Did that make it hard to get a date?
[Laughs] It sure did! We greenhorn freshmen that were fresh out of high school were always at a disadvantage.
I bet you didn’t have any problems. Could you tell me about what the faculty at Luther was like, especially the physics faculty?
It was very small. I took general physics from Emil Miller, who was a very, very fine teacher. There was another teacher who taught math and physics. I think the Department only had three people at that time.
What were the physics classes like? Was there a lot of modern physics, or what we would now consider modern physics? Could you talk about that?
Well, I guess we had a course on quantum mechanics; I can’t remember very well. I think that my favorite course, as I look back, was optics, especially optics lab — I loved optics lab. You could literally see what was going on.
Very neat. Were you or other students involved in any research at Luther?
No, we didn’t have any opportunity for that at that time. Now of course they have undergraduate research, but not in 1946.
How did your family feel about your decision to study physics?
They were always very supportive. I don’t think they had any real strong feelings one way or the other. They encouraged my brother and me to study and be scholars.
Where did your brother go to school?
Well he was four years older, so he was just starting his education when the war broke out. He started at Luther College also, but then he transferred to the University of Minnesota where he could accelerate his program, and he actually got through undergraduate and medical school on an accelerated basis in six years I think.
Did his experiences influence you, or did you pick up any tips on how to succeed in college from him, as he was your older brother?
Oh, I guess so. He was certainly a role model. He was a very scholarly and dedicated student. When I was growing up I was usually the cut-up. But I’m sure I was following his example.
Some things never change — still a cut-up! [Laughter] Anything else that you’d like to say maybe about the town of Decorah? Was it like where you grew up? What was there to do recreationally? Was there a lot of sports, or just anything like that?
Well, of course the college had teams. I loved sports, and played intramurals in college. I didn’t go out for varsity sports. My college years are memorable and very pleasant.
In 1950 you started at Iowa State University as a grad student, is that right?
So how did you decide to go to Iowa State University?
Well, I think it was probably the only place I got an assistantship. I applied a couple of three different schools, and Iowa State offered me an assistantship.
What was the level of the assistantship? Can you talk about that?
It was a research assistantship that was on a project that Professor Sam Legvold had, and he had an opening for a research assistant.
Did you know him before you started there?
No I didn’t, although he was a Luther graduate. But it turned out to be a very fortunate break for me: Sam was a wonderful person to work for, and he became my mentor.
Did that project end up becoming your thesis project, your dissertation project?
Yes, I continued on that for years.
So I’m curious because I’m from central Iowa, and I’m wondering what was Ames, Iowa like in the 1950s?
Well, not that much different than it is. It was of course called Iowa State College then — they changed their name to University. It was still Mo-Ru, just like it is now.
That’s neat. Our favorite restaurant to go there is Hickory Park. Was Hickory Park there at the time?
I don’t remember that, no.
Well it’s a good place. When you go back you should go get some ribs and ice cream. So what did the physics graduate students do for fun there?
Oh we studied night and day, Andy! [Chuckles] One thing we did do is we had some real fun parties. We always invited the faculty, and put on a skit kidding them.
That’s neat. I know that Iowa State has a fairly long tradition of science and physics and engineering, but at the time, what was your sense of what Iowa State’s legacy was really about?
Well at the time, I was focused on getting my degree in physics, and I didn’t really give that much thought to what Iowa State was. I enjoyed my four years there.
What was the ISU Physics Department like, the faculty?
Well, we had some very good teachers. As an outgrowth of the work that was done there mainly in the Chemistry Department by Professor Frank Spedding and his colleagues in separating U-235, Iowa State got a major funding from the AEC to set up the Ames Laboratory. So the Ames Lab actually funded I suppose half of the research in both physics and chemistry. But I was outside the Ames Lab. Funding for our project came from, well it was called NACA, National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics, and it later became NASA.
So Spedding now has a building named after him, right? Is that where Ames Lab is now, in Spedding Hall?
Interesting. Anything else you want to say about your time at Iowa State or anything like that? Anything that maybe I didn’t really ask about?
Okay, so your first job after grad school was with Univac, a division of Sperry Rand. When you started there, did you expect to stay there long term?
Well, it was a job. I hadn’t really made that much of a decision. I probably should mention I took one summer off while I was at Iowa State, and worked for this small firm called Engineering Research Associates in St. Paul, and that was the firm that was later bought by Remington Rand and became a part of Sperry Rand. So when I finished my PhD I went back to work for the same company.
Can you talk about what you did there?
The main thing I worked on was applied magnetism, in particular magnetic memory for computers. I guess the main claim to fame of those three years at Sperry Rand was developing thin film magnetic memories. Up until that time most of the computers had ferrite cores that were laboriously strong on wires running in three dimensions, and we experimented with planer memories to replace these that were much more easily fabricated.
Feynman is famous for talking about how much can you write on the head of a pin, and obviously now with solid-state memory we can store a lot. At that time, did you have any vision of where memory would go magnetically and so on?
Well, nobody could have foreseen the whole future of magnetic memories, but certainly we were working for miniaturization by making very, very thin films.
So is Univac where you received your patents?
Yes. Because this was quite a new field, we patented everything in sight. Some of those patents turned out I guess to be quite valuable. Not for me, but for the company.
So you spent three years there, then you moved onto St. Olaf. How did you get that position at St. Olaf?
That’s kind of an interesting story. In the back of my mind, I guess, I thought I might someday make a move to academia — I enjoyed teaching. But I got a phone call one night from Peter Fossum, who is the Chairman of Physics at St. Olaf, and he said, “Would you consider coming to St. Olaf?” I said, “Well, I hadn’t really given it much thought to make a move. I had only been at Univac for three years, and I was doing some interesting research. And he said, “Well, are you interested enough to come down?” Northfield was only 40 miles away, so I said sure I’d come down, spend the day. And it was kind of one of those things that just happened. I enjoyed my visit, and it just more and more seemed the thing to do. My wife was willing to make the move. So that’s how I ended up in academia.
That’s a great story. How did you know Fossum? How did he know to make that call? Did you meet at Univac or before?
No, I’d never met him, actually. I think some people at St. Olaf maybe — well I think the president of St. Olaf probably knew my father, knew the family. Anyway, somebody had recommended that he call me.
So you said you’d done some teaching at least informally in high school, but you had a research position at Iowa State. Did you do any teaching at Iowa State?
Yes. When I think about it now, there was a gap in my research assistantship. I actually was on teaching assistantship for one year, maybe two. I started out on research assistantship and ended up on that.
So when you got to St. Olaf, how long did it take then for you to become comfortable being a professor?
Well I sort of got a shock treatment when I arrived there. There are only two of us: it was Peter Fossum and me. Fritz Christianson was on leave at the American Institute of Physics that year, so essentially I think Peter taught all the beginning physics courses and I taught everything else. I think I had a teaching load of something like 22, 23 hours.
Oh my gosh! That’s amazing. What kind of support did you get from the college and the Department and your colleagues?
Peter Fossum was a wonderful person to work with. He was just like a father. And as I said, we didn’t have very much in the line of resources. Our Physics department at that time was housed in the basement of a classroom building. The next year, then, Christy, Christianson came back from his sabbatical, so we had three people and things got better. And the Department really grew quite rapidly. When I left St. Olaf we had six people, and we had a lot of physics majors. I think my last year there we had more physics majors than seven out of ten of the big ten schools, or something like that.
Did those students get involved with research?
Oh yes, very much so. Early on, as soon as NSF established the Undergraduate Research Program it was called then, URP, we applied and were successful in getting grants, and had them every summer. So I had some wonderful students there as summer research students. That made it possible for me to get some research done.
So you said that when you started you had a huge teaching load, and that by the time you left the Department had grown. But on average, what was the ratio of your teaching load to the research that you were doing at St. Olaf?
I always considered one of the innovations that started while I was at St. Olaf was the 4-1-4 program, where we did away with credit hours and the students took four courses in the fall term, four courses in the spring term, and one course during the January interim term. So our teaching loads I think were six courses a year, which was a very reasonable teaching load, and allowed us to do a little bit of research during the school year, although nearly all of it was done during the summer.
Some of still have the six-course teaching load, right? That’s reasonable. So after 14 years was it, you left St. Olaf. What were the circumstances under which you came to be at Northern Illinois University?
Well, Northern Illinois University had just gotten approval in the Physics Department for a doctoral program. I had been Chairman of the Department at St. Olaf my last years, and I was hired to be the first Chair of the Department at NIU under this new PhD program. And that seemed an interesting challenge. I liked teaching undergraduates at St. Olaf very much, and I couldn’t have wanted for better colleagues, but it just seemed like I was at a point where it would be interesting to undertake a new challenge.
So how did your family feel about moving down to Dekalb?
Well, mixed feelings I guess. My kids were in high school, and of course they’re never overjoyed about leaving friends and moving. But they didn’t object.
After a few years you stepped down as Chair of the Physics Department. Can you comment on why you chose to step down?
Well, I was pretty naive about the politics of higher education. Between the time that I accepted the position as the first Chair under the PhD program and moved to Dekalb, the decision had been made in Springfield, in the capital, not to fund the program, so it was put on hold. As you know, it was on hold for I guess about 30 years, close to it.
Speaking as a young academic, it’s nice to hear other people admit that they are naïve, because I often feel very naive. Can you describe the differences between St. Olaf and NIU that were immediately apparent when you started at NIU?
Well of course the most obvious is size, and the fact that the focus of a large university is on research and graduate study, and Olaf undergraduate teaching was important, it was important to me at least, it was not the most important things in the minds of a lot of our faculty.
What was it like taking on grad students and teaching graduate level classes after teaching only undergrads at St. Olaf?
That I enjoyed very, very much. It was a challenge to me, and I enjoyed it very much. Over the years I was at NIU I have had some wonderful graduate students.
Well thank you, I think, right? [Laughs]
So you were at NIU for over 30 years. Can you comment on what most changed about the Department, the University, or the students while you were there?
Well, the Fermilab was just in the planning stages when I came there, and we of course geographically were the closest university to Fermilab, so we moved into high-energy physics. And also we were very close to Argonne, so we put quite a bit of stress on material science and condensed matter physics. So the Department really developed along those two lines.
Your training and early work was in solid-state physics and magnetics, but you’re perhaps best known for your contributions to musical acoustics. I was wondering how you came to work on the physics of music?
Well I actually started teaching physics of music at St. Olaf, which of course has a very well-known and excellent music department, and they wanted me to teach a course in physics of music, so I did that all the years I was at St. Olaf. And I started a similar course at Northern Illinois University, but then after I completed my term as Department Chair, I decided that I was ready to try something new. I was still doing spin wave resonance in magnetic thin films, but I decided to start a program in acoustics. At that time there was a lot of emphasis on environmental physics, and environmental noise control seemed to be a very promising field for our graduates to get jobs, so I just started teaching a couple three acoustics courses, and that grew into the acoustics program. But of course my own personal interest was still in physics of music or musical acoustics.
Can you comment on who maybe really helped you get going with the acoustics program that you started, or was it I know you’re a talented musician and you played with orchestras. Can you comment on just your early influences in studying acoustics?
I had had a course in acoustics at Iowa State, but that was the only formal training. I knew I needed to learn some more acoustics myself, so I applied for a sabbatical to go off to MIT and study under Uno Ingard, and that was a very, very fine experience. Uno of course is a wonderful acoustician and a great teacher. So I attempted to get up to speed in acoustics during that year.
Who were the people involved with the Acoustical Society of America when you got involved there?
One person I certainly should mention is Art Benade. Art Benade was Mr. Musical Acoustics, and he knew I had an interest in music, so he got me to chair sessions at meetings. But I found a lot of congeniality in the Acoustical Society of America, and I still do. I still look forward to each and every ASA meeting.
So I know that part of the time you did research while you were at NIU you were involved at Argonne National Laboratory, and I know that you were also working on the acoustics at that time as well. Did you split your time evenly between acoustics and magnetics, or how did that really work?
Argonne had a very attractive program for sabbatical leaves. You could work full time there two summers and half time during the sabbatical in between, and that was when I started working in applied superconductivity. I of course still had an interest in magnetism, even though I wasn’t pursuing it at the time actively. But I did some very, very interesting work at Argonne first on magnetic levitation for high-speed ground transportation using superconductors, and then we later looked into short-term energy storage using flywheels that had very, very low loss magnetic superconducting bearings.
So I’m wondering if this country is ever going to see a maglev train or maybe cars with flywheels in them.
Well, if gas gets to $5 or $6 a gallon, maybe we will. But our national effort in high-speed ground transportation hasn’t moved along nearly as fast as many of us would like. And so Argonne actually got out of the maglev business; there just wasn’t support for it from the government.
That’s too bad. So in my five years at NIU, I counted, and I could be off, but I counted at least six people who came to work in our laboratory and take measurements over a considerable amount of time. I don’t suppose you have any idea over all the years approximately how many people may have come through your lab, or what sort of projects went on that went beyond just the students that were there and your own personal research.
Well, I don’t have an exact count, but was certainly one of my delights was having people come to spend a sabbatical leave or spend a summer, faculty members from other institutions, and we had people from China and Sweden and other countries come and serve as visitors in the lab. That was great for both me and the students.
Yes, it was definitely great for me. But also when I was at NIU I had the sense that the musical acoustics lab was largely unappreciated by the rest of the department. Do you agree with that, and can you comment on it?
Well, I don't know that I’d say unappreciated. The Department of course had set its sights on interaction with the national laboratories. That was where the support for graduate students was. But we had a lot of fun as a small appendage. I don’t think the other faculty had much interest in what we were doing. We could go on our own pathway, right?
Yes we did have a lot of fun. So now you’re at Stanford in California. How did you end up there?
I retired from NIU finally, and my first visiting appointment was from University of Edinburgh in Scotland. I was there for six months, and then I had this opportunity to be a visiting professor of music at Stanford, and I spend a winter quarter teaching there. And I liked it very much, and they seemed to like me, so they invited me to come back on a longer term scheme. So I said good-bye to my snow shovel and moved west.
I’m jealous. So you mentioned Edinburgh where you spent some time in the lab after your retirement, but I know that you’ve traveled extensively and have done long-term research sabbaticals in many places throughout your career. What were some of the other labs that you spent extensive time in?
Well I’ve had some very, very fine opportunities. I guess the first one was at Stanford actually in 1961-‘62, and then I went to Oxford 1965-‘66. I was still doing magnetism at that time, and I did research at the Clarendon Laboratory. I spent time at MIT and at the Royal Institute of Technology at Stockholm, at the University of New England in Australia. I guess part of the reason I’ve always welcomed these opportunities was, as you suggested earlier, that there wasn’t too much interest in my acoustics research locally. I’m the kind of a person that needs colleagues to interact with, so I travel around the globe seeking them out.
Thank you. [Tape stopped.]
You’ve got a copy of my resume, haven’t you?
I have it. I assume that they got the details right because you wrote it, right? [Chuckles] So we’re back after being fed, and again, I’m Andy Morrison with Thomas Rossing, and we’re here in Salt Lake. We’ve adjourned to a more comfortable location. Tom’s grandson David is also with us. So we were talking about the travels that you had done in your time, and especially where you’d spent some of your sabbaticals. I was wondering if your family lived abroad with you when you went on these sabbaticals.
Oh yes, I took all five kids. We went to Oxford and we camped all over northern Europe the summer before the Oxford term, all over northern Europe the summer after, and made a trip down to Spain. I think we added up that we’d spent 16 weeks in a tent. So my kids are world travelers.
Do you think that that had long-lasting influences on your kids in addition to developing a love of traveling?
Well, some of them love to travel and some of them hate traveling. I guess it polarized them. I have one son who is living and working abroad now, and a couple of daughters who like to travel and then a couple who don’t.
Do you still spend any time in tents?
[Laughs] No, I’ve given up. I’m a creature of comfort now.
Yes, but you’re still very active, right?
Oh yes. Hm-mmm [yes].
Almost every day at NIU you would tell me that you were going to go to the gym. Do you still run and play tennis?
I try to exercise. I don’t play tennis competitively any more. My dream was to retire and be a tennis bum and a ski bum, but Mother Nature had other ideas. I have an arthritic ankle due to an old sports injury, so now I pretty much sit on my duff and write books instead.
I’m still highly jealous of your backhand. And your forehand — very, very strong, which I’m extremely jealous of. I’m not a tennis player, as you know, but I still like to try. Well we’re going to talk about your books in a bit. I was wondering, we were just talking about the sabbaticals. Your professional life has taken you to other places. Where else have you traveled — where else has physics taken you professionally?
I was just asked at the dinner tonight by a Chinese student how many times I’d been in China: four times. I guess I’ve been in Japan five times and Korea quite a few times. Did we mention my teaching in Korea after I retired?
I don’t think we talked about that, no.
My first visiting assignment was in Edinburgh in Scotland, and then I’ve been a visiting professor at Stanford, but I did spend one semester in Korea as a visiting professor at Seoul National University.
That’s really neat. I know I haven’t had the opportunity to travel with you internationally, but I do know that you’re every at ease when you make new contacts all over the world. It seems to come very naturally to you, and I wish I could be that comfortable in unfamiliar situations. I was just wondering how you do that? How is that so easy for you to make these new contacts?
Well, I don’t know that it’s unusually easy for me. I like people. I like to meet people and get acquainted with them.
Is that how you ended up in Korea? Because it seemed like you hadn’t necessarily known Junehee very long, for example.
Well, yeah, you put your finger on it. Junehee Yoo was my last doctoral student at Northern Illinois University, and she arranged for me to come to Korea. She was already a faculty member at Seoul National University and arranged for me to be a visiting professor there.
You were there for one term. Can you tell me how the students were? I assume you taught in English, right?
Oh yes, I didn’t learn much Korean. Oh the students were very, very nice. They were very bright and very polite, very pleasant. I really enjoyed Korea immensely.
What could a physics teacher, like me maybe, learn from the Koreans? Or what did you learn from the Koreans and what do you think they learned from you?
You mean as their teacher what did I learn?
Yes, while teaching physics?
They’re very attentive, very hard working, and they’re just awfully nice students. But then I have awfully nice students in the United States too.
I have one question about Korea. I was wondering if you could tell me about that time, because I’ve kind of forgotten, but could you tell me about that time that you and Chris Chiaverina went to Korea?
[Laughs] Well that was several years ago. My former student Chris Chiaverina, who was also president of AAPT, a very, very outstanding high school teacher, the two of us were invited to give talks to teachers, I’ve forgotten now, I guess it was an Asian physics teachers meeting held in Korea. Anyway, we were traveling together. You mean about our adventure in Tokyo? [Yes!] Oh yes, that’s a good story. Chris is a very large man. He’s very tall and husky, and he just doesn’t fit in economy seats at all, so he said, “Tom, let’s upgrade to business class.” I said, “Okay, fine.” Well we changed planes in Tokyo, and during the wait we had access to the VIP lounge. So we went in there, and it was just an eye-opener. Wall-to-wall Sushi and food and drinks of all kinds. But the coup de gras was beer-pouring robot that you pressed the button and the robot went in the cooler and got a chilled glass, tipped it to just exactly the canonical angle and filled it with just the right amount of head. We just stood there laughing, and I said, “How did we ever win a war from these people?”
The Japanese are very clever.
Yes they are.
So is there any place in the world that physics has not taken you yet that you’d like to go see?
Well I haven’t lectured in Antarctica!
Well maybe McMurdo will take you. So one of your research interests that has taken you around the world was your work on bells. How did you get started working on the acoustics of bells?
Well, I guess actually a hand bell manufacturer came to me with a problem that we were able to solve, and it made us friends. This was Jacob Malta, the president of Malmark Incorporated. It made us long-term friends, and it got me interested in just how bells do work. And then I suppose it was about 1988? Well, I’m just not sure. I was invited to China to give a lecture at a symposium in Wuhan commemorating the tenth anniversary of the discovery of the Zēng Hóu Yi They were a renowned set of bells that was found in the tomb of the Marquis of Zeng, and so there were bell freaks, bell experts from all over the world there. And I just kept on with that. I was fortunate to study ancient Chinese bells from the time of Confucius both in the Sackler Gale Gallery at the Smithsonian and also in the Shanghai Museum, and I’ve just always had a love of bells.
So I’ve seen a picture of you in the Kremlin in front of the world’s biggest bell, and I was wondering, nobody has ever heard that bell, right? It has never rung. If you are an expert on bells, can you speculate on how it might sound? Is that even possible.
It would be. I haven’t tried. But if you have the dimensions of a bell accurately measured, you can use finite element methods and calculate most of the principal partials. But to my knowledge, no one has done that with the Tsar Kolokol in the Kremlin.
A great project, maybe. So the hand bell company that you were talking about, they funded a project. Were other projects on the bells funded like that, or any of your other acoustic projects funded by companies like that?
Well, yes, we’ve gotten support from a number of small grants from a number of musical instrument companies. My standard is fund a graduate student and my time comes for free, and they’ll usually come through with a small amount of money to sponsor a graduate student.
Do you think that’s a good strategy for other people in musical acoustics to use? Or is there any hope for us to get funding?
Well, of course it’s much better to have a continuing grant. There was a period of time when NSF did support musical acoustics, but I think there are maybe only a handful of such grants. We just don’t fund things like that in this country. Now France I guess is probably the leading country in doing musical acoustics. There are a number of universities there where it is front-line research.
So I want to talk a little bit about your publications. You’ve authored, at least according to recent counts, over 350 articles and 14 books. I’d like to hear about that, and I want to know how you found any time to sleep.
Well number 16 just came out. That’s the Springer Handbook of Acoustics. We had a dinner with some of the authors that were here at the ASA meeting last night. It’s been fun writing books, there’s no doubt about it. It’s time consuming, but it’s rewarding. I haven’t made much financial reward, but it’s been my meal ticket all over the world. People get to know my name because they’ve read my books, and that’s a lot of fun.
What was the first book you wrote?
The first one that was published I guess was The Science of Sound, the first edition of that. That's now, as you know, in its third edition, and that's become a pretty standard textbook.
What was the hardest thing about becoming an author of books, making that transition?
The hardest thing by far was to get a publisher to publish my first book, then after that was reasonably successful. Then it wasn’t particularly difficult to get contracts.
You’ve also been very active with professional societies. We’re here at the Acoustical Society of America meeting. You’ve been active with the American Association of Physics Teachers and the American Physical Society. Am I missing any others?
Oh, a couple. I’ve always tried to divide my efforts about equally between physics research and physics teaching. I love them both. And of course that means I early on joined the American Association of Physics Teachers, and I have many, many friends in that organization. I served as president in 1991 I guess it was, and I also was awarded the Millikan Medal by that society. I have a fellowship in the Acoustical Society, the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, AAAS, and also the IEEE, the Institute of Electrical Electronic Engineers.
You said you got involved with the AAPT early on. When did you start to become involved with the other societies?
Well, I guess I haven’t been as active in IEEE and AAAS as the others. I’ve gone to several meetings and presented papers. The American Society, of course, was the first society I joined when I was a graduate student. I can remember going to a meeting at the University of Minnesota, and during that meeting there was a total eclipse, and we all went out to the University of Minnesota airport north of St. Paul and watched the eclipse together.
Oh that’s neat. I remember meeting you at the centennial meeting of the APS. I don’t know if you remember that.
I was not ready to graduate at that time from my undergrad, and I was inquiring… I was worried at that time that you were going to retire before I was going to graduate, and I was really glad that that didn’t happen.
Oh I remember that meeting. That was the one in Atlanta, right?
I went to that meeting on my way back from a joint meeting of the Acoustical Society of America and the European Acoustical Association in Berlin. I’d like to comment that that was at that time the largest acoustical meeting ever held on planet Earth, and the centennial meeting was the largest physics meeting ever held on planet Earth.
And you were at both.
Yes I was at both. Had fun at both.
That’s great. So were you ever involved with the NSTA, The National Science Teachers of America?
Yes, I served on their board one term, but never terribly active. I was very interested in their project scope, sequence, and coordination. It was a project aimed at getting physics into all four years of high school instead of concentrating physics in only one year, biology in only one year, distributing all the sciences throughout the four years, and most other countries in the world do it.
That’s interesting. You mentioned you were president of AAPT in 1991, but you are on the executive board for longer than just that year — four years. How did the executive board function while you were on it?
It’s the governing board of AAPT, and we met I guess four times a year or more, and it was a lot of fun. Lot of work, but a lot of fun. They were great people, and of course I met a lot of people that I wouldn’t have met otherwise.
Were there any initiatives or projects that the AAPT undertook while you were on that board?
Oh, I’d have to really scratch my head now, Andy. We have some, but nothing world-shaking I guess. We hired a new executive officer I remember, and started several… we had a big focus on laboratory. But I can’t really remember; I’d have to dig through my notes.
That’s okay. You kept it going for sure, right. You also were very active in the Illinois and Minnesota and the Chicago sections of AAPT, including being president of them. Why did you get so involved with the local chapters?
Well, that’s where the action is — that’s the important part. There are lots of outstanding high school physics teachers that aren’t able to regularly attend national meeting of AAPT, but they attend state meetings, and in my opinion that’s the most important part of AAPT.
I was really thrilled when I was at NIU that you introduced me to both the Chicago section and the Illinois section, and I didn’t really realize until I left the Chicago area that it was so unique to have both the Chicago section and the Illinois section. I also believe in the importance of the local chapters, so I thank you for introducing me to that.
I was wondering, like both on the local scale at those meetings and at the national meetings, how have the AAPT meetings changed since you’ve been going to them?
Well, one thing that I’m sorry to say we don’t meet jointly with the American Physical Society anymore. We regularly had a joint meeting, and it was at that APS/AAPT joint meeting that I heard Fermi and Dirac and Feynman and all these greats of physics. Now it’s more difficult to do that, and I wish that AAPT and APS still had occasional joint meetings.
AAPT had a joint meeting with ASA, the Astronomy Society. Would it be possible you think, look in your crystal ball, could AAPT meet jointly with ASA?
Oh yes. I’ve been trying hard to promote that idea, and we came very, very close. I think we’re within a signature or two of a joint meeting in Providence year before last. So I hope that will come about in the near future. I would like to see AAPT meet jointly with all of the AIP member societies. You mentioned we’ve met jointly with the Astronomy Society a couple of times. I would certainly like to see the AAPT meet with the Optical Society. But of course my pet society is the Acoustical Society.
You said that you were teaching acoustics way back at St. Olaf. When did your involvement with ASA start? Was I while you were at St. Olaf?
I think it was. And, yes, it must have been. I can’t remember exactly when it was, but it must have been about then.
Were you ever Chair of the Technical Committee of Musical Acoustics here?
Oh yeah. I served a couple of terms as chair of the Technical Committee of Musical Acoustics.
Do you remember if there were any projects or initiatives that were undertaken or any ways in which that Technical Committee grew while you were involved in the leadership of it?
I can’t really remember any Earth-shaking changes. Certainly we arranged some interesting meetings.
The Technical Committee has arranged some special concerts, like this meeting we had a yodeling concert, which was extremely unique and well received. Can you remember other unique stand-out concerts?
Oh we had a lot of them. In fact that may have actually started while I was chair of the Committee, I’m just not sure. I remember we had a session that focused on glass musical instruments, and one side got the Westminster Bell Choir there. We always tried to have sessions that discussed the technical side of some instrument or some aspect of musical acoustics, and then featured a concert that blended in with that.
That’s always a highlight of the week. And I know you’re on some other committees here with the ASA. Can you tell me which ones you’re involved with, and how you got to be involved with them?
Right now I guess I’m on the Publications Board and the Publications Policy, largely due to my editorial activities. I edited Echoes, the quarterly newsletter for ASA, and associate editor of the Journal of the Acoustical Society and also the Journal of the Acoustical Society Letters.
The Journal of the Acoustical Society Letters, I’m not familiar with that I don’t think.
That’s the new online. It’s actually the Electronic Letters, the AASAEL, that publishes short communications online with very, very short referring time, and eventually publishes them in the Journal of the Acoustical Society.
How long have you been involved with editing these, and how did you become involved with them?
The associate editors are appointed by the editor in chief. The Echoes one I was the second editor of that. I don’t know how long I’ve edited that; must be close to ten years now. That’s been a lot of fun.
It’s a lot of fun to read. So you’re Associate Editor of Education, right?
Right, for the JASA I’m Associate Editor for Education, and for the JASA Express Letters I’m Associate Editor for Musical Acoustics.
Often when I’m reading through the JASA I don’t see many education articles. I was wondering what you think a direction the ASA members could go into maybe get some more papers.
I’ve asked myself that, and everybody in the Society, the same question. I’d like to see more writing activity. Now there are a lot of very fine teachers of acoustics in the Acoustical Society, but they don’t sit down and write up their ideas. In fact as you know, we have a lot of very lively sessions on acoustics education. You’ve been involved in a number of them. But people don’t feel the need I guess to write these up for publication.
Do you think that maybe part of it is some people feel that these ideas that they present in the education sessions are not at a level appropriate for JASA? Could that be part of it? I don't know.
Yeah, I don't know, Andy. I guess it’s just we all have a lot of items on our plate; we do the ones we consider the most important first, and writing articles on acoustics education just doesn’t seem as important as sharing research with colleagues.
You mentioned your Echoes editing, and I know one of the most popular columns in that publication is Scanning the Journals, which you write and sometimes you get submissions for. I know you’ve described yourself as an information junkie, and I think everyone knows that you’re a voracious reader. I was wondering, where do you find those things for Scanning the Journal? What are your favorite things to read? And again, when do you find time to sleep?
Well I’m retired, Andy, don’t you remember? [Chuckles] Well I probably read most of these journals, like Nature and Science and Phys Rev Letters, interestingly enough, I find some very, very good articles on acoustics. And I’m always careful to cite these articles that many of the Acoustical Society members wouldn’t necessarily scan. We assume that all the ASA members look at their own journals, but some of these others sometimes have some very interesting papers dealing with acoustics.
Do you read any science online, like maybe popular things or just anything on the Internet of particular interest?
Yes, I spend a lot of time browsing the Internet. Now I’m not sure I understand the reason myself, but I’ve never been a fan of science-fiction, so I don’t read and enjoy science-fiction like some of my colleagues do. But I certainly enjoy a broad spectrum of science. I like to read about what’s happening, now especially in the biological and medical sciences.
Do you enjoy science-fiction movies?
I’m not a real fan of them. I’ve seen a couple of them. Well mainly so that I could talk to you, right! [Chuckles]
I hope so. Have you seen Star Wars?
Yes, I think I saw one of the Star Wars.
You know that Star Wars defined my childhood, so I feel sad that my students are young enough that they haven’t even seen Star Wars, so it’s hard to relate to them. But I love seeing Scanning the Journals.
So we talked a little bit about the changes in the AAPT meetings. I was wondering how the ASA meetings have changed since you started coming to them.
They’re growing in size I guess. We have new technical committees now that didn’t exist when I first joined. We’ve had joint meetings with the Japanese Acoustical and the European Acoustical Society. I enjoy these very much. Otherwise, the meetings are basically the same, I guess, as they were when I started coming to them. Just different faces.
They seem to have a rhythm to them that the members really enjoy. You were talking about how the AAPT no longer has the joint meetings with the other societies. Is there anything that no longer happens at these ASA meetings that you especially miss?
I can’t think off-hand. Now apart from AAPT not having joint meetings with the American Physical Society, of course the attendance at the general APS meetings has diminished somewhat, with the exception of the big March Condensed Matter Meeting. But we don’t have as many general meetings of APS, which is in a way too bad. I earlier commented about how thrilled I was as a puppy profession to hear Fermi and the greats, and many people just don’t have that opportunity these days.
That’s true. I wonder who you consider to be the president-day greats in physics.
Oh there are a lot of them, Andy. You put me on the spot now. Who would I nominate for the next Nobel Prize? [Chuckles] Just last week I had the opportunity of hearing Charles Townes talk about invention of the laser, and then the next day I heard Pete Kanofsky and other greats in high-energy physics talk about the history of electronic acceleration. I’m very interested in history, and especially in the history of physics.
You mentioned Nobel Prize. How many Nobel laureates have you met?
Oh I don’t know. That’s an interesting question. Quite a few of them, quite a few of them. In this connection, I’d like to just mention one person who was a friend of mine who almost became a Nobel laureate, Ernie Wollan. I had his son John as a student at St. Olaf, and his father used to come and visit him. Of course he was one of the pioneers on neutron diffraction at Oak Ridge, and for many years that work wasn’t recognized for Nobel honors, and then finally they did, and Ernie died just a few months before the Nobel Prize was awarded to some of his colleagues.
Can you tell me about the Nobel laureate you ran into at an AAPT meeting a couple of years ago at a poster session, I believe?
That was Carl Wieman. Of course Carl was always very interested in physics teaching, and he presented a poster paper. You know, some people think a poster paper is kind of a consolation prize, but he presented a poster paper on teaching of physics, and I thought that was really quite a statement for him.
Definitely. So you have a reputation for finding interesting alternative lodging at meetings and conferences. This is something that a lot of people have told me about. I just want to say for the record this was a great hotel that we are in — I love this place. But can you tell me about some of your unique accommodations that you’ve stayed in?
Oh my goodness! Well when I got to AAPT summer meetings, I always stay in the dormitory. I love that. For instance when I got the Millikan Award at the University of Guelph, I invited all my kids and grandkids, the whole family to come out there, and most of them were there, and we had one whole corridor in the dorm, and it was jolly. We ate our meals together in the cafe — it was fun. You and I have roomed together at a number of meetings at somewhat less expensive lodgings than the convention hotel, right?
Oh definitely. But I’ve heard about some floating accommodations.
You’ll have to refresh my memory on that.
Was there a hostel perhaps that was on a boat?
Oh, in Sweden! That was an International Conference on Musical Acoustics. We stayed aboard the AF Chapman, which is an old sailing vessel in the Stockholm harbor that’s a youth hostel.
That’s neat. To let you know, Rene and I are going to be staying in the dormitories at Greensboro. If you come, you can be right down the hall from us.
All right, I may take you up on that.
[Chuckles] That’s great. Switching topics, in recent years you’ve endowed some programs related to education. By my count there’s now a Rossing Prize in Education here at the Acoustics Society of America, there’s a Rossing Scholarship for Physics Majors at Lutheran Colleges, and most recently now there’s a speakers’ fund at the Illinois section of the AAPT to bring speakers to their meetings. Can you tell me more about these projects that you’ve undertaken, and what motivated you to set these into motion?
Well, of course I’ve always been very interested in physics education, and when I see opportunities to benefit physics students, physics teachers, I often jump at the opportunity.
That’s neat. I know so many people who see you as a teacher that they’d like to emulate, but I also see in you that you see other people who you try to emulate and learn from. Can you talk about some teachers that you try to take things from, either from your past or some current teachers?
I’d have to give that some thought. I think I earlier mentioned Pete Fossum, who was my colleague at St. Olaf. Of course Sam Legvold was my dissertation advisor at Iowa State, and he was a very, very good teacher. I guess I pick up bits and pieces from quite a few teachers. I thought Feynman was a great teacher, and I’d love to be able to imitate him, but I don’t think that’s in my cards. But I’ve learned from a lot of very good teachers.
Again switching topics, other than being department chair, did you ever think about going into administration?
Not very seriously. That sort of got it out of my system [chuckles]. I did enjoy my department chairmanship at St. Olaf. It was a small department, and we sort of rotated the chairmanship, and everything was decided by consensus. At NIU it wasn’t quite such a happy experience. As I already explained, it was due to conditions beyond the Department’s control that we had to do a lot of budget cutting during those years.
I can’t really see you in a dean’s chair. I don’t think you’d be comfortable.
I can’t either!
So getting back to your writings, I know you’ve written at least one article for Scientific American that would be considered a popularization of a topic. I was wondering if you’ve written any other books or articles that would be considered popular works?
I’ve written two or is it three articles for Scientific American. I’ve also written some books, for instance my Science of Percussion Instruments is written as a popular book, it’s not a physics text or anything of the sort. And I’ve written a number of popular articles for trade journals.
How were those publications received both by the public and by your colleagues in the science community?
Oh I don’t really know. I don't know that I’ve had any “must reads” articles [chuckles], certainly no books at airports.
Well they’re fun for me to read. We’re actually coming to the end of what I’ve prepared, but I have two more questions, but before we get to those two questions I want to know if there’s anything else that we haven’t talked about that you would like to talk about.
You’ve covered the ground pretty well, Andy. You’re a pretty good interviewer! You ought to go on radio or TV!
I don't know about that. I’m not going to quit my day job. And I have great material to work with. So my first question of the two remaining, these are both questions that I promised myself if I ever got the opportunity I am going to ask Tom Rossing these questions! I look at what has gone on in musical acoustics before I came into it and a lot of the contributions that you’ve made, and if you saw there was a recent article in Physics Today that sort of echoed this, and I look at it and I say wow, those people that covered a lot of ground and really made some great contributions to the topic, which make it very exciting for me but very challenging to uncover new things because the basics really seem to be there. I was wondering if you could look into your crystal ball again, what are the big challenges, or what are some of the open questions that we should be tackling and looking at in the coming years?
Oh boy, that’s a tall order, Andy. I guess a lot of what’s happening and what’s going to happen in musical acoustics centers around the computer. Your generation grew up with the computer, my generation didn’t, and so you’ve got a lot of skills and imagination about what is possible with computers that never would have occurred to me and my friends.
Are there any acoustic instruments that should be looked at that haven’t really had full attention to them?
Oh, there’s a lot of them. We’ve only touched the surface really, as you know — you’ve looked at some string instruments and some percussion instruments, some wind instruments. There are many, many more that haven’t been studied. There’s plenty of PhD thesis out there. And of course there are new instruments being developed right along.
My last question is we were talking earlier about all your travels, and that took a lot of plane trips for you. You once told me when you were on a plane and people ask you about what you do, that there are a couple of questions that always seem to come up and that you have stock answers for these questions. I’m not sure if I remember the questions, and I know I certainly haven’t heard the answers. So I was wondering, if we were sitting on a plane and I didn’t know you, what am I supposed to ask you and what are you going to tell me?
Well I think I’ve probably commented that one question I’m often asked is will they ever discover the secret of Stradivarius. You know, that indefinite “they”. Another one had to do with concert halls, why can’t they design good concert halls? Again, that indefinite “they”.
And your answer to them?
In respect to Stradivarius, I point out that there are some very, very good violin makers practicing the trade today, and two or three hundred years from now their instruments may be just as valuable and cherished as those of the great Italian maker, we don’t know. But I don’t think there was a secret of Stradivarius. With regard to concert halls, well we had some very interesting sessions on it at this meeting, and a lot has been learned about concert hall design. Architectural acousticians still make mistakes, but they certainly understand their trade much better than was possible 10 or 20 or 30 years ago.
Well thank you so much. That concludes all the questions I have, and I would just like to say it has been a great thrill for me to get to do this. Perhaps we should meet again for a follow-up next time ASA comes to Salt Lake. Would that be all right?
Well it’s always fun chatting with you, Andy, whether we have a microphone in hand or not. But we’ve probably done more than enough damage. Thank you very much.