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Credit: Paul Hewitt
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Interview of Paul G. Hewitt by David Zierler on 2020 January 20,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/44084
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In this interview, David Zierler, Oral Historian for AIP, interviews Paul Hewitt, creator of the classic undergraduate textbook Conceptual Physics. Hewitt discusses his childhood and educational experiences in the Boston area, his service in the U.S. Army, and his graduate work and teaching career in physics. The majority of the interview covers Hewitt’s creation of both the textbook Conceptual Physics and his education philosophy, which centers around the joy he gets from explaining fundamental concepts in physics to non-science majors.
Alright, it is January 20th, 2020. This is David Zierler, Oral Historian for the American Institute of Physics and I am here with Paul G. Hewitt -
We're here in his beautiful house in, uh, in St. Petersburg. And um, so we're going to just start right at the beginning. Can you tell me a little bit about your parents? Where you're from, and where your parents are from, and what they did.
Yes. My parents were working class Scots-Irish in the Boston area, specifically the town of Saugus. My father was lucky that in the Depression he was employed. He was a meter reader for the gas company, which luckily meant we didn't starve through the depression. I was very interested in two things at that time—roller skating and boxing. And I liked boxing due to being a victim of bullies in the early years in school. They'd always come chasing me and everything. And one time they chased me up the hill, and my mother was out there on the porch. When I called for my mother, she said, "Paulie. You're gonna have to fight your own battles from now on." And she closed the door. Well, across the street and in back of the house across the street, was where Eddie McCarthy lived. Eddie McCarthy was a well-known boxer. A lightweight, very, very good in the ring. Well, as like fate would have it, I became friends with Eddie McCarthy and in sparring sessions he’d use me as his punching bag. At the time I was not even 100 lbs. And Eddie was 135 lbs. And I really got into boxing. And I became as it turned out, very good at it. I wasn't very strong, but I knew how to throw punches and avoid them. It's nice when you're a kid to find something that you love doing.
And you get better and better at it. And boxing, for me, was wonderful, because I was just a weak little kid and to be able to do it in a huge arena, always hearing my dad in the crowd was, very, very enthralling.
Now, were you born in Boston?
I was born in Boston General Hospital on December 3rd, 1931.
Where did you grow up?
Saugus is a suburb?
Saugus is a little town north of Boston.
And in between it and Boston, there's Revere. And that's where my father worked for Suburban Gas and Electric company. So boxing was my big passion.
How old were you when you started?
Oh I started when I was 13. And by the time I started doing tournaments, I was 16 or 17, very seasoned for my age and very good at what I did. But I wasn't very strong. My big event was the New England Amatuer Athletic Union annual championships. I easily won the quarter finals. NEAAU. The fighter I faced in the semi-finals, the state champion beat the hell outta me. His specialty was body punching and he hit me repeatedly on my body. Because I was so skinny, he thought he could just punch right through my skinny body. Nevertheless I out-pointed him and won the bout. But I was all tired out. And I was too tired, really, two hours later to fight the finals, to finish. My energy ran out in the second round and I lost. So not the gold, but the silver medal. So I was faced with what to do with only a silver medal in boxing? The answer was, go on to a career in physics!
And so it was from boxing to physics.
Now, had you already demonstrated an aptitude in science in high school at this point?
No, no. I didn't. I was told by the school counselor that since I’ve displayed a talent for art, I wouldn’t have to take the academic courses. I coasted through high school. As for the talent in art, if you look in my book, it says "written and illustrated by Paul G. Hewitt." I do all my drawings.
So Hewitt drew it.
Hewitt drew it, yeah. Turned out I became a sign painter. I also worked in shops in Boston doing silk screen printing. Boston was not a good place to do outdoor sign painting. You don't want to paint signs outdoors in Boston in the winter. It's a bitch. So I went to Miami, FL.
Wait, but we're skipping over college yet? Or you hadn't gone to college.
No, I don't go to college.
Okay, all right.
College? No, I'm working class. I’m comfortable with my place. I'm working class.
I know my place.
And people that went to college, that's fine. That's for them. But you know, going to college means you have to spend four or five years in there and not make money to live on
Well, c'mon. I like to paint signs and I've—all the time trying to make a few bucks.
Okay, back to Miami.
While silk screen printing in Boston I met a friend, Ernie Brown, who convinced me in mid-winter to go south to Miami, to get away from the cold and drizzly weather. I did and was fortunate enough to be employed by Webster Outdoor Advertising In Miami. There I met Burl Grey, a fellow painter. No one wanted to paint with him, because he was uh, accused of being a little odd. He was very odd, he was not accepted. He was, I soon found out, guilty of being an intellectual.
Well, intellectuals don't cut it in the sign painting culture.
That's right, that's right.
You know. This guy, instead of talking about cars and sports and fantasy sex life, this guy Burl talked about ideas. All the time ideas and little puzzles. No one wanted to paint with the guy. He was a pain in the neck. I loved it, oh my God I was going nuts over spending 8 hours a day painting with this guy. And by this time, I'm married to Millie Luna, the gal I went prospecting with in Colorado after I got out of the army. I'm skipping over a lot.
In 1953 I was drafted into the Army.
So you were in the Army?
Yes, at the time of the Korean War. But I flunked the first physical because I was too skinny. Quite interesting that I had no trouble passing physical exams with boxing. So I didn't pass the physical for the army. I was not drafted in 1952. But I was drafted a year later, in 1953.
The examiner thought I dieted to avoid the draft. I remember the day I was hauled off on the Army Jeep that fetched me at my home in Saugus. I said to my mother, "Get the beans and franks ready tonight because when they find out how how much I weigh, they'll send me home." Well they never put me on a scale again until halfway through basic training. And I thought, “I'm here by mistake." But I ate up army life. Because in the army, a lot of it has to do with being in good physical condition, and having a good attitude about things in general. I was primo at those things. I was the skinniest guy in the place, but I came in number two in the battalion for competitive physical exercise. Uh, how many push-ups you could do, all that kind of thing. And it was easy for me, because I, I was a boxer. I spent all my youth
All the time training, training, training. So the army was a cup of tea. I loved it. But I didn't have to go overseas, because the last day of basic training in the army was the day that the white flag was raised in Korea. And I think that was uh, mid '53. So I never went overseas. I stayed in Colorado. While still in the army, one time in the day room I picked up a Life magazine, and there's a gruffy-looking picture on the cover, and it says, "How Vernon Pick Made $9 Million in One Afternoon." Well, that sounded pretty good. And he did that by finding some uranium. In neighboring Utah. Gee, I reasoned, if Vernon Pick made $9 million in one afternoon, I would be willing to spend many, many afternoons in pursuit of uranium. We'll see if I could make maybe not $9 million, but $1 million would be quite okay. I just wanted to escape the lot of the working class. Be nice to have some money, you know. No one I ever knew had any money. So I decided I'd do that. So I got into prospecting.
You were already discharged at this point?
After being discharged, I stayed in Colorado. My discharged was in '55. Instead of going back to Massachusetts, like everyone else did in my battalion, I stayed, I stayed there. I wanted to go home wealthy. So I stayed in Colorado and I prospected for uranium. I financed myself by painting signs. I had a geiger counter, but wanted the better scintillation counter that would detect uranium so much better than a Geiger counter. Geiger counter cost a hundred dollars. But I got a contract to paint a whole lot of billboards for a motel owner in the town of Salida in Colorado, and charged him $5000 for the job. With that $5000, I bought a scintillation counter. And with that scintillation counter, I loaned it out to a fellow prospector one time, and he came back and he said, "I think I found some stuff." So I went with him, and we found out, gee, there's some uranium in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. So we staked a whole lotta claims. This is wonderful, I'm wealthy. So I, I turned in my Jeep and I, I bought a, I bought a, a two year old Cadillac convertible. Light green. Leather interior. Touch bar radio. And uh, spoked wheels. It was absolutely wonderful owning a two year old Cadillac. Now it's gonna cost me $100 a month for payments, but all I gotta do is get through the winter, and when I come back, due to being snowed out in winter months. And so I'd have to go back to Massachusetts, but when I come back, well, the payments will be moot. Well it turned out, the uranium wasn't of a grade high enough to market to the government. So I made no money at all.
Did you extract it and find that out, or--?
Yeah, oh yeah, I, and I even paid $100 to a fellow who wrote a geology report. I said to him, "Wow, you're getting $100 for one day's work?" "Yeah, I have a degree in geology." "Hmm, how 'bout that? Well." So he'd write up, you know, "da, da, da, da." And I got a nice geology report. I did everything right. I staked claims, and I had 'em, visited my own surveying and did everything nice. But I never made a dime out of it. It, it didn't work out. I was, however, impressed that the geologist was paid for what he knew, not for what he did.
No $9 million for you, huh?
Not even, not even $1 million. So, what's to do? You gotta be a physics teacher. Right? (laughs) But it's about, late about that time that I went down to Miami, second time, and I met this fellow, Burl Grey. And he introduced me to his good friend Jacques Fresco. And Jacques Fresco was world-renowned. He's one of those self-made scientists, uh, not a scientist, so much, but a futurist. He talked 'about a wonderful world in the future if more people got into engineering and science, rather than, uh, law, stating that most people running the country have degrees in law. He felt the country should have more engineers. Anyway, I was en-enthralled with this fellow, Jacques Fresco, and the way he looked at the world.
How'd you come to meet him?
I met him through Burl Grey. Burl Grey was the fellow who I painted with.
And I'm painting with Burl Grey eight hours a day on the billboards, and he's just peppering me with all sorts of ideas. And uh, that just blew my mind. Well, for one thing, he, he made me think more in terms of science than religion. 'Cause I remember one time he says, "Why do you think the sky is blue?" I say, "Well, God likes blue." He says, "No, there's a great more to it than that. And he'd get into that type of thing, and uh, made me question my religious beliefs. Which weren't that strong, so I was okay. So I uh, I swung over after, after some time. And everything became clearer. There were reasons for things, and they weren't in old books, they were yet to be discovered. If you want to find out something, you don't read an old book, you, you, you experiment and you investigate. This was an enthralling new way to see things. Oh, I was just blown up. And now I had to go to school. 'Cause I have to learn more about this. Jacques Fresco was very good, but most of his was psychology, and, and economics, that type of thing. A better world through engineering. But I wanted to get right into science. So I did. I went up, back up to Boston, and I found out that in high school, I didn't take the required mathematics. I took basic math for boys, along with general science in the 9th grade and that's about it. So I had to go to prep school for a year and a half. I went to Newman Prep in Boston, and I just aced everything. I was just a perfect student, if I do say so. Mainly because I was so revved up, and I wanted to find out what is going on in a bigger picture. And I made a little sign for myself, a little sign about this big, with one word. "Why?" With a question mark. Why this, why that. I mean, that, that's got me all through school. I'm studying things, and I'm, I remember one time reading about how the surface of a soap bubble would scatter different colors of light. Not scatter, but (inaudible). And I thought, "Who, who cares?" But then I says, wait a minute. Get into it. Why is that happening? And that made it very, very interesting. I wanted to know why that's happening. Not because someone said so. Well you've got to study it and remember it, but I wanted to understand really why that and, and everything else, happens. So I had a great, great appetite for just wondering why about everything. After Newman Prep I enrolled at Lowell Tech. That was the poor man's MIT. Up in Lowell, Mass. And I went there four years. An interesting thing happened while I was there. I was called to the department chairman, who said, "Your lab report must have been plagiarized. How did you do that?" And I said, "I just wrote it out." He said, "You didn't copy anything else?" "No, no, no. That is, I just wrote it the way I would say it to you." And I realized, like, hey I had a knack for writing. That was kinda nice.
This is the physics department?
In physics department, yeah. Yeah.
When did you settle on physics as the discipline to study?
Oh, right away. I uh--
When you started studying?
First. When I attended Newman Prep there was a course in physics and uh, the physics teacher, Jim McDonald, was very inspirational. Because of his class I came to love physics. The physics seemed to be very, very central, and something that wasn't controversial. When I was under Fresco's influence, he was mostly into psychology. I knew there were different kinds of psychology. There was Jungian psychology, Watsonian psycholgy, among several others.
Behaviorism and all these things, and he was mostly into behaviorism. But there were different, different kinds. And I thought if I, if I did something like that, go to school then learn one thing really well, then to maybe later find out I'd picked the wrong one? I, I don't wanna waste my time. I don't wanna learn something later on that I'll have to unlearn. So it seemed that the most sensible thing to learn was physics. Physics is at the bottom of the science chain. Yes, there's mathematics, the language, then physics, and then there's chemistry, biology, and astronomy and da-da-da-da. I want to be right at the root. And I wanted to be at a place where there's no kind of: physics is taught in California different than the physics is taught in, in the East coast, or the physics taught in Russia or anywhere else. Physics was a general, it is universal. I wouldn't be, be studying something that later on I'd have to unlearn. Like people get into a religion, and they really believe it, and they later on, they have to unlearn it. It's very, very painful. So I wanted to get into something solid. And that was physics. And I've never regretted that.
And Mr. McDonald was the one who instilled that appreciation of --
Yes, he did.
-- how foundational physics was?
Yes he did. And I, I let him know that, too.
Yes, yes. And then I went on to Lowell Tech, and I thought there were gonna be all these people like Fresco. There weren't any. There was only one great teacher, Raymond Gold, and he taught the seniors. And I used to sit outside and listen to him, listen to him, uh, the way he would teach. And this guy has really got a teaching talent. And the other people, good people, but they didn't have that something that Fresco had. Oh my god, Fresco could teach. And Dr. Gold could teach. And anyway, I, I, I suffered through that four years. Oh, I gotta tell you why I went to school, too. I was always in a hurry. I, I didn't want to spend too much time at something, 'cause I wanted to always be progressive, almost, it's almost like uh, Benjamin Franklin. Every day he wanted to make sure that he didn't waste his time, that he was improved a little bit, improved, improved. And to go to college, I had mixed feelings about that. And I said to my brother-in-law, "You know, if I do go to college, by the time I get out, I'll be 32 years old. Well, he said something very profound. "How old will you be then, if you don't go to college?" (both laugh) That did it.
That, that's good.
That did it. And so I'm off to college, and I went to Lowell Tech. Poor man's MIT. You know, I gotta tell you that way before I went to prep school is I tried my hand at MIT. Went up to the place, and almost knocked at the door of admissions. I was graciously received and I had a talk with the admissions officer. Very soon into the talk he said, "Oh wait a minute, hang on. Hold on. I gotta get other people to come hear this." With one or two others he says, "Now, get this straight again. You have some uranium holdings in Colorado, you have a, a Cadillac convertible, you’re recently married and have a son, and what you want do is become a scientist?" Yes, that's what I want to do. "Why do you want to become a scientist?" Because I want to learn how to make the world better place, because it's very troubled. I want to be a scientist of some kind, and I really like physics. And he's talking with his friends there, and he says uh, as if I weren't there, "You know, once in a while we ought to take in someone who doesn't have the standard preparation and see what happens." And all I had to do was to say, "That's me. Put me in there." Then I could have gone to school with my friend Paul Dougherty, who was going to MIT. I think I would have learned a lot more there. It might've been over my head, though, too. As it happened I went to Newman Prep and then to Lowell Tech. I learned a lot about teaching at Lowell Tech, but sadly, by seeing what not to do as a teacher. I had negative role models. And it was what not to do.
Not to do. Right.
And there was one professor that taught the core courses — I'm not gonna say his name. He was really, really great, but his exams. His exams were terrible. I mean, we'd, would study this, da-da-da-da-da, and on the exam there's nothing there, nothing on what we learned. He'd been with his friends and, "Oh, I wonder how many of my students could handle this?" And he'd put that on the exam. It was just horrible, horrible. It made me almost wanna quit. And uh, so I said, "I'll never do that. I'll never do that."
Now, how much did you think this was about where you were as, as opposed to just the way physics was taught? Are you so confident that you would've had better educators, better professors at a, at a place like MIT?
No, I, well no, I didn't realize that at the time. But I think I definitely would have.
You would have?
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. I can’t for sure say. I’ve talked with Paul Dougherty about this. According to Paul, the professors at MIT were really, really good. Like all Dr. Golds, I talked about. And I didn't have that. And uh, and then Lowell, Lowell Tech was trying to compete with MIT. They used all the same textbooks. They used Panofsky and Phillips, for example, in junior year. When I went to graduate school, that was the graduate book. (both laugh) Then we had Plasma Physics by Chandrashekhar. Didn't know what the hell was going on, but I got a C in the course. And uh, there was just-- everything went too fast. And I, I knew I was gonna be a teacher someday, because I found out I had a knack for explaining things even to family and friends. I could explain things well. And a lot of teachers know their stuff, but they can't explain it very well. And so what's the point? So I knew I wanted to be a teacher. No longer a research scientist, but a teacher.
During your time at Lowell Tech, you knew already?
At Lowell Tech, I realized what these guys are doing, I knew I could do better. And uh, but anyway I finished Lowell Tech and it was very, very... It was hard. Oh, I, I have to say, I was married at the time, and by then had two children. We didn't know about birth control.
And so we had two children before I was ready for it, and much of the stress of going to school was taking care of the kids when they got sick, and things like that, and, and no-- having no income. You know, there was no wealth in the family that, you know, would make things easier. So going through school was a, was a very traumatic experience. But I wanted to, to become a, a teacher, a physics instructor. I'd have to get a master's degree. So I went out west, where my wife was from. She's from Colorado, and I tried at Colorado State, University of Colorado, and I would get turned down. I got turned down because I needed an assistantship with a family to support.
For a master's degree?
Yeah, I wanted to get a master's degree. And uh, my grade point at Lowell Tech was 2.54. And I was the fourth in the class. We had about close to 20 physics majors, and I was fourth, and all the rest scored lower than me.
But I did get into Utah State, because one of the professors at Lowell had some doings to do with electrodynamics labs at Utah State, and he gave me a big recommendation. So they accepted me. With an assistantship. So I went out to Utah State and everything came wonderful at that point. The professors there were wonderful. The pace was wonderful. I got A's instead of C's. Everything was great, everything came together. It wasn't rushed. Graduate school, you know, you're not taking 22 units, you're not doing that. You're not taking 18 units, which was the lowest I ever took. I had more units in physics than most people with a PhD have. So it was information overloaded at Lowell Tech. Much too fast, and you'd just learn something and then, well, you've gotta move, move on, move on, move on. I learned more in the summertime reading physics textbooks. I read Eric Rogers' Physics for the Inquiring Mind. And another one was Kenneth Ford’s, Basic Physics. That guy is great. And that guy today is a very, very close friend. But, but reading these textbooks leisurely, and then... But what happ-- Oh, I'll tell you what happened, the big change happened at Utah State. I became a Teaching uh, uh
Recitation Instructor. Woo, that is it. We used Halliday and Resnick. And I had to explain Halliday and Resnick solutions to the problems. And that's pretty good physics in Halliday and Resnick. So I learned a lot of physics doing the recitation sections.
Where you were leading the smaller classes?
The smaller classes, yeah. These classes would be about thirty students. But then, there was another thing too, I had another problem. I was terribly shy uh, and uh, the idea of getting up and talking to students was so big a hump to get over. When I began Utah State, the first day of class was on a Tuesday. I thought on a Tuesday there’d be no recitation session because the lecture's on Wednesday. And you uh, the recitation sections follow the lecture. I was told by other graduate students that I had to address my first class at 11 o'clock. I said, "no, no, no. there hasn't been a lecture." And I was told, "Well, just, just talk about vectors." Well, no, I'm, I'm not prepared. I, I cannot do it. And I didn't. And so someone else took over for me. And my first time in front of the class was on the Thursday. And Thursday, that day, I looked at my room early, very early. I'm walking around the empty room, pacing, and I have my notes. I went into the bathroom. I had to keep peeing. And I finally come back and I came in, not at 11 o'clock, but a little bit after. I came in and placed my notes on the lectern in there. When I then started to teach I was so nervous I peed my pants.
I was terrified.
And I had light grey pants. And I learned out later on that a piece of cloth that's wet will be darker than a piece of cloth that's not wet.
--I learned later.
And I, I make a big deal out of that now.
Why wet sand is dark and why dry sand isn’t—it's wonderful, (mumbles) involving internal reflections of light bouncing around and the absorption that occurs with each reflection. It’s just wonderful, the, the stuff we teach. But anyway, uh, I survived the embarrassmemt of all that. I survived it. But I was so nervous talking to new people. Now, the fact that I was self-conscious meant that I didn't wanna waste peoples' time. I remember Fresco saying that if you're in an auditorium, and someone asks you to come up and give a little talk, you can't do it. You'd be too nervous. But if there's a fire and someone says, 'Yell fire!' You'll yell fire because you know when you yell fire, that information will be valued by the people.
So if being introverted, you don't wanna be wasting peoples' time. You want to make sure that everything you talk about is valued by the students."
And that fact helped me become good at what I was doing. In overcoming my nervousness I became a better teacher. I made sure to learn myself what I explained to others. I can tell you that the day I earned my master’s degree was one of the happiest days of my life. I would then earn my living doing what I loved best—explaining the physics I learned to others. Nothing could be better.
Were there any professors that uh, you considered mentors?
Oh yes, and quite wonderfully. Two especially. Uh, one is Farell Edwards and the other was John Merrill. And these two fellows, I think they got their PhDs in Cal Tech in three years, were exceptional teachers. They taught at Utah State because they're Mormon bishops, choosing to live where they loved. And by the way, I still give high marks to the Mormon culture.
I was a non-believer at the time. I don't belong to any religion, because, you know, the religion you believe in has a lot to do with where you're born and how you're introduced before you can think for yourself. So, but when I was there with many Mormons around I came to respect them. I was treated very well in my two years in Utah. I greatly respected my two professors for being Mormon bishops and I never had a chip on my shoulder with their religion at all. Not at all. Those two were outstanding, and no other professors there were on the short side of teaching competence. Utah State was a wonderful and rewarding experience. Part of that experience was Dr. Taylor, a professor in the School of Education, sittng in on my resitation sessions. In addition to my physics and math classes, at her suggestion I took classes in education. So when I left Utah State University in 1964 I had two MS degrees—one in physics and one in science teaching
One in physics, one in education?
Yes, although my theses for both were in physics. I loved research almost as much as I loved teaching.
At Utah State I met a friend that has turned out to be a life-long and cherished friend—Huey Johnson, who got his MS in wildlife management a year before I left Utah. Huey was an environmentalist, and talked me and Millie to begin my teaching career in San Francisco, where he secured a position as Western Regional Director of the Nature Conservancy. Huey was very influencial and was chosen by then governor Jerry Brown to be his secretary of the interior, or some such post called something like that.
Yes, a teaching job. I wanted to teach physics.
That's at City College of San Francisco. Hewie told me that being from Boston, I’d for sure like San Francisco, having a liberal atmosphere and all, without the snow. That appeals to me a lot. So San Francisco seemed like that'd be the place to go.
In my interview at City College of San Franciso I stated to the dean of instruction that I wanted to teach people how to see that everything is connected in a beautiful, beautiful way. I want them to see the wonders of physics. I passed three interviews, way simpler back then, and was hired as a long-term substitute. Later on, I learned that the dean of instruction was one of the signatories an anti-Vietnam War effort advertised in the local newspaper. Loyd Luckman’s name was there. So we were on the same wavelength that way. Anti-war. Get into positive things with physics.
So what year was this, when you were hired there?
Oh that was 1964.
And uh, I got my degree from... my second degree from Utah State in '64, and I got my, at the end of the summer, I went right to California, and, and started teaching at City College of San Fransisco.
Did City College have a physics department, or was it a general science department?
Oh no, they had a good physics department. Fourteen instructors. Oh, it's a strong physics department. If anyone wants to learn physics, you go to City College. Don't go anywhere else. And every one of those teachers is primo. All chosen by that one guy, the department head, Art Austin.
Most of the faculty had masters, or there was some with PhDs?
PhDs too. Yes. But my MS was enough at that time.
And had I waited the three more years, oh I could’ve gone three more years and got my PhD at, at Utah, the timing would have been terrible for me. Hiring was down everywhere. I was lucky to be hired when I did. This is what I wanna do. And if I had waited three more years and gotten my PhD, more respect from people by the way, but I have enough. My wife and family, I’m loved just the same—plenty.
So I'm fine. Best I didn’t spend three more years at Utah, for at that time, there was talk about PhD people pumping gas in gas stations. So the economy changes. I had good-luck timing.
And there weren't, weren't the openings and everything.
At the time I was hired the dean said, "Oh, you have a master’s degree in physics? Come on by."
That wouldn't be said today.
You gotta have a PhD if you're to be hired into City College.
And all instructors today have PhDs there. That's a different time—the ballgame has changed. So anyway, at City College I got the course I wanted to teach. It was called Physics 10, Descriptive College Physics. And the textbook was the same name by Harvey White, UC Berkeley. And it was a very, very good book. And I taught from this book in my Physics 10 classes. And the enrollments kept going up and up and up. It turns out, I was like a Fresco to the students. Because I would never spend an hour without having some good punchline, that oh my gosh, did you know that? Oh my, is that the way it is? That's what I wanted to do. And I did that.
The course is a, upper class? Freshman?
No, it's-- No, no, no. It's a be-- No, it's a beginning class. Physics 10. It's the first of a sequence. It's for non-science majors.
It was a very popular course over at UC Berkeley, and uh we had it at City College, too. And all through the state of California was Physics 10. Most teachers used uh, the, the, Harvey White book. It was a good book. In fact, my table of contents, the book I ended up writing, was just the same. The sequence of topics was comfortable for me, and I think most teachers. I just had a wonderful time teaching.
You taught at Berkeley also?
It was a great experience to teach physics to higher-achieving students. To maintain my practice of C being my average grade, I had to use slightly harder questions on my exams. The Berkeley physics department took me in as a visiting lecturer in 1970 by recommendation, by I don’t know who. I had a reputation for teaching. You know, my friend Ken Ford, something interesting happened then. Ken Ford is a physicist’s -physicist. His book, Basic Physics, is just incredible. He was attending an AAPT meeting in San Francisco and by chance shared a seat on a bus going over Oakland Bay. His companion raved about her love of physics, due to her class at CCSF. She was telling him, a stranger, how learning about physics was affecting her life. And Ken Ford is hearing this. That, that was a lucky thing to happen, making a good impression on a great teacher outside of the San Francisco region. When I later became good friends with Ken I kidded him for not boxing when he was a youngster. Instead of going into boxing, he hung around scientists at Los Alamos and worked with Fineman and Wheeler and those guys. I says, "Ken, you could've made something of yourself. You should have shunned those guys and got into the boxing crowd." (both laugh) I was recently surprised to learn that Ken did do a bit of boxing in his highschool years! Yum to that!
Now, in teaching non-science majors, what were your goals? Did you wanna convert them into scientists?
What was your goal?
I did not want to convert my students to becoming scientists. I did not wish to make them replicas of me. I did not want to do that. There's enough scientists. There's enough. There's enough. I wanted them to see the world through the lens of science. And to see how meaningful it is and how everything is connected and how these connections are wonderful. And that's what I wanted them to learn. Because I learned all of this late in life when I could have learned it earlier. Before I discovered physics, at 25 years old, I didn't know that in a seesaw, a certain force times a distance is equal to another force times another distance, producing a balance. When my brother-in-law told me that my reply was “That’s wonderful." He said, "Oh, well that's just mathematics—everything is mathematics." I said, "Really? I gotta know more about this." So I mean, I was, I was an adult when I learned that. I guess I must have gone through that in 9th grade, way back. But I don’t think it was emphasized. This is exciting stuff. And uh, I like, I like to be the person who introduces other people to this exciting stuff.
And younger than you were when you learned it.
Younger, yes. Younger than me. Yeah. All this is wonderful, there's, there's, there's not one... one day in teaching that I haven't come up with a part of something that I'd say, "Wow, is that right?" And, you know, people talk, "How can we make physics interesting?" Are you kidding? (laughs) Tell me some field of study that's more interesting than physics. Okay, human sexuality. If they did that in the school, they'd mess it up. There'd be (laughs) we'd have a population that would go down. No, but physics is ... how can I say it? What, what is more exciting than physics?
Well, why? Why is it so exciting? What do you think?
It’s exciting because it’s relevant—physics teaches us the rules of nature. We live in a natural world. And we come into this world, and don't know anything. And there's do's and don't's. And these do's and don't's are what make it so that you can live to be old instead of getting eaten by a lion when you're three years old or whatever. And the rules of nature are all in the laws. When a student learns the equation for a law of physics, they’re acually learning the laws of nature. Physics is a study of the laws of nature. And uh, do you want to know about nature in this life, or not? You come to City College. You're gonna take education beyond high school. Would you like to know the rules by which everything happens? Or not? C'mon, it's a no-brainer.
(laughs) In fact, what happened at City College was that the counselors heard from students about all my success and everyone was sitting in my class, the deans and the president. It seemed everyone at City College sat in my class. I found myself a celebrity there. And I'm just talking about topics that we know about. Everyday physics. Elementary physics. And I didn't get into the cutting edge physics that teachers love to cover. This goes back to when I was hired. I remember impressing the dean of instruction when talking about the bubble chamber over at Berkeley. I said that I don't wanna teach my students about how the bubble chamber detects tiny particles before they've learned why bubbles form when they're boiling the eggs in the morning. He was impressed with that. Get to the basics. They extend beautifully. Well, I stuck with the basics. And uh, I never tired of it. For example, if I sat in some other instructor's classes, I don't think they'd spend very much time on Newton's Laws. After a while, you burn out and you, you know, you wanna talk a little bit more. So you spice it up. Mistake. Mistake. Your task is to talk about Newton's Laws. I had a friend, Dave Wall. He did magic tricks. He'd see a little girl and delightfully take a penny out of her ear. "Look at that. I'm gonna make the penny come outta the other ear." And some guy said to him, "Don't you get tired of doing that trick, year after year?" He said, "No, every time I do it, its with a new kid."
And if I had to teach Newton's Laws in front of a bunch of physics professors, I'd fall flat. I prefer teaching Newton Laws to people who don't know about them.
Sense of wonderment.
And with them, I want to lift 'em. And show 'em there's connections. And these connections are something that other people didn't know about, you know, in the old days. And we know about these now. Amazing. And the connections are all in any physics text book. One such book that I loved was Physics for the Inquiring Mind, by by Eric Rogers. Oh, I was not allowed to adopt it because it was too thick and heavy.
Department chairman And Art Austin took the bus every day, and he sees the kids carrying all their books. He says, "No, that book is too heavy."
It's just too heavy?
Back then, yes. Today it's a standard book. It's 8.5 x 11 inches.
And it's thick, like just about all the books are today. But back then, you know,
That was big.
in the 60s.
I was not allowed to use Physics for the Inquiring Mind. So I didn't. In 1969 I told myself and the school bookstore that I’d write my own notes for the Fall Semester. Dick Main, the bookstore manager said he’d print them and sell them in the City College bookstore. With that commitment, I had to write notes for the whole course. And I did, a summer-long writing spree. My thinking was I'd simply cite Newton's first law on a page, and leave the rest blank for student note taking. The next page, Newton's second law, then the third, and so forth for the whole course. And so the summer of '69 was devoted to writing what became Conceptual Physics. And I did it in one summer. My notes turned into a book with the title, Concepual Physics—a New Introduction to Your Environment.
You weren't thinking textbook at this point?
No. Textbook? No. The professional people do that.
It wasn’t until the second edition that I learned I was among such people. Not merely a sign painter from Utah.
And I'm having a great time.
So I wrote up those notes that summer, the summer I was alone. My wife and kids spent the summer with inlaws in Colorado. And I had people in my house, and one day in July was very important. They were upstairs watching the Moon landing on television. I'm in the back room working on relativity. I said to my guests, "When they're just ready to land, call me 'cause I wanna see that." So I did when they knocked at the door. "Here, you better come up now." So I went up leaving my typewriter behind. This was before the advent of the personal computer. Then, writing was done on a typewriter, not a computer.
So I went upstairs and I saw the Moon landing. My great wish was that my father were alive to witness this awesome event. It was wonderful, but I feared the austronauts would not safely return to Earth. Too many things to go wrong. Going up there, fine. Coming back, no way. No way. Any how joyous to find I was wrong!
What of the illustrations in your book?
Most all were drawn with pencil. I'd put pencil illustrations on typewritten pages. I was happy about that because I can teach from my own book. With Harvey White's book, I’d tell my students to skip over some of the derivations here, skip that, skip that, and so on. With my own book there’s no skipping. Furthermore I had no time to teach problem solving. If I had taught these non-majors problem solving, how far in the course would I get? I'd get through kinematics and then Newton's Laws and the semester would be over before I taught rainbows. I wanna teach my class about rainbows. I wanna teach them about nuclear power. Why we say, "know nukes” instead of “No nukes.” No nukes was a K-N-O-W. Okay? I wanna teach a broad span of physics, to rainbows and beyond.
Your illustrations are mainly cartoons. What do cartoons do for physics education?
My cartoons in Conceptual Physics are a mixed bag. They provide a way to visualize an idea. They also communicate a friendly atmosphere in a course that needs all the friendliness possible. This works well in the high-school version of my book, but sends conflicting messages in the college editions. Cartoons have decreased my sales a lot too, because a lot of instructors think, "We're not trying to make a fun course out of physics. We’re insead serious." For these instructors cartoons further reinforce the misconception that my book is watered down. Then there are some instructors who distain the whole conceptual thing, popularizing a field of study worthy of serious hard work. "What's Hewitt doing, trying to popularize physics?"
Yes, I am. Yes, yes. Guilty, guilty. "Well it's a lot harder work." Yes, it is. Yes it is. And they'll, they'll get to that point. But this is a start in learnng phyics, an introduction that can be delightful to students. And if it is, there’ll be more students than not in the followup courses. But again, my motive doesn’t go that far. I’m content to show as many students as I can that physics as the rules of nature should be part of everybody’s education.
How do you--
I'm not like Halliday and Resnick, a book that details as much physics as is delegated to upper division physics, and even graduate study. That is not what Conceptual Physics is about. Not at all.
How do you use cartoons to convey purely theoretical concepts, like multiverses and things that we can't... Defy visualization, I should say. What do you do for that?
Well, if there's a little insight that's, I'll have a cartoon character saying it, to give the statement emphasis, you know. Just a little cartoon face and a little cartoon blurb, you know, pulling together the different ideas. But uh... The cartoons could go two ways. One could say, "I'm not gonna certainly could use a book with cartoons in my serious course." Okay, they don't. They don't. Not everybody likes the conceptual approach. Not everyone likes the funny little faces and doing this and that. The cutesy. it's not a book for everybody.
But it's a book for enough it seems.
In teaching, class time is a driving force. I have my students for sixteen weeks. Only sixteen weeks. After that they’ll likely learn no further physics for their lifetimes. Whatever physics I wanna share with them has to happen in sixteen weeks.
They'll never take another science course.
At least most of them.
They're gonna be whatever. They're not gonna be physicists. They're not gonna be scientists. I have a responsibility to give a thousand students a semester their money's worth. And I did. So, I don't have any time for problem solving. So there's no problem sets in my book. That's why I knew the book would not be adopted by anyone else. So it's just my agenda. And I told Dick Mane at the bookstore, of how some publishers will be impressed with a whole lotta books, but you'll have to tell them that this is a City College book. Because I do physics without any problem solving. Well, they’ll say that's not physics. Well, the way I teach it, it is. And it won't be accepted anywhere else.
So explain the difference. What is physics with problem solving and what is physics without problem solving? What does that mean?
Well, algebraic problems are what most physics courses are about. You get a set of problems, and you'll learn techniques for converting equations into numerical answers. Now I had all the central equations of physics in my course, but I didn't use the equations as recipes for problem solving—like, where there's an F put in 20 Newtons. Now the equation says, net, net, don't forget to account for 5 Newtons of friction. So you subtract that. Then you divide the result by the masses, something like 10 kilograms of this, and da-da-da. It's putting the numbers in. That's, that's the way physics is taught. But not in my, not, not in my course. If I taught it that way, I wouldn't have 1,000 students a semester.
What kind of reaction did this get from your fellow faculty members? Who prepared students for careers in physics?
I was a blessing to them. I took the task of teaching non-science majors in Physics 10 so they could teach the more desireable science and engineering majors. There was no conflict.
I’ve gotta tell you more about Ken Ford. When I do anything now, like upgrade editon and creating Figuring Physics, he checks what I do for accuracy. This was in response to many educators who were not enthralled with Conceptual Physics. My early editions were greatly critisized for abandoning math. If math meant numbers, the critisisms were valid. Math is deeper than numbers, for the equations of physics are shorthand notations of physical laws. I taught these laws, but without the usual followup of numerical computations. Ken came to my defence. In writing his own book, Basic Physics, he was reaching out also non-majors. He saw that my book was doing the same and he wanted to make sure that it would succeed. I owe much to Ken, one reason two editions have been dedicated to him. In addition to being a great physicist, Ken is a great human being.
You taught at other places. What was that about?
Just when the pre-published version of Conceptual Physics was out I was invited to guest lecture Physics 10 at UC Berkeley for a summer quarter. This was in 1970. I was invited again for two quarters in 1980. My reputation for teaching reached across San Francisco Bay. I loved teaching there.
That's why they wanted you to come over?
Yes, as a guest lecturer.
Great universities do that. They bring other people in to do guest gigs. A great thing happened to me while teaching Physics 10 at Berkeley. Three years before my mother died, she flew up from Texas where she lived at the time, and made her way to my classroom as a surprise. With tears I introduced her to the class. Teaching at Berkeley was a wonderful experience. When the course reached its last day, students threw flowers all over the lecture table. And they rated teachers at that time. And I was happy to get the highest rating of any teacher at UC Berkeley in history. So that was nice.
Where else did you teach?
After my two quarters at UC Berkeley I was invited to teach the same course at the University of California Santa Cruz campus. I taught there for two wonderful quarters. That was in 1980. Nine years later I invited myself to teach at the University of Hawaiil, Manoa campus. I was accepted to guest teach there, mainly because, like the California universities, my textbook was taught there. Which helped, especialy in Hawaii.
I’ve seen some of the videos of your teaching in Hawaii.
Yes, something I haven’t talked about was the videos of my teaching. That happened first at City College in response to a request my former student and friend David Vasquez who asked if he could bring video cameras to my class as part of his graduate thesis at Chico State University. That was in 1983. After getting used to a video camera in my classroom I was asked by the physics department at Hawaii to do the same for their new distance-learning program. I feel defined by those videos today.
Did you every think about doing textbooks that were more for upper-level undergraduates, or graduate students?
Uh, yes. Yes. And it turns out that there's so much effort that I put in this one, that this is enough. In fact, if you look at some of my other, uh, author friends, they'll start with a book like mine and then go to another and go to another. But for me, I've just stayed with this book. At one time I thought of writing physics for pre-medical students, to Physics 2a and 2b and sequencing to 2c, with many medical applications, and that sort of thing. And I went into a hospital one day, and I looked at all of the paraphernalia there. I told myself, "Well wait a minute, this stuff is way, way, way above me. I think I'll just stay where I am." Others can write for students who need to know about this growing technology. That’s simply not me.
In your, uh, you wrote a article in the Physics Teacher in 2011, where you describe teaching and writing Conceptual Physics as a, as a joy.
That’s certainly true.
Was that, the, the joy you're talking about, is in getting people to see the world?
Yes with a capital Y!
In this way?
Yeah, yeah. If you found out something that's really fascinating, don't you wanna share it with your friends?
Well, and if you go into a school in front of hundreds of kids out there, you wanna share these ideas with them as if they were your friends. And you see your students as important as friends. A real friendship often evolves from students after your course is over. Several of my friends were once my students. I’ve met most of my friends at AAPT meetings.
'Cause it's quite wonderful.
How, um... You've had at least probably, what, two or three generations have come through on-- learning conceptual physics probably?
Oh, I don't know. I don't know. I started teaching in 1964. I’m not the one to say. All teachers, whether they realize it or not, greatly affect the lives of their studens. And whether we like it or not, we’re role models. And with that comes a responsibilty to show fairness in all that we do. That’s right, fairness.
Do you ever get any feedback from former students?
Yes i do sometimes, yeah. And it's always positive and very gratifying.
Is there something intrinsic about physics that lends itself so well to this educational approach? Could you do this for chemistry or biology?
Yes. It’s very effective in physics because compared with chemistry and biology it’s the simplest of the courses. All too often students come into a beginning physics course thinking it a tough nut to crack. So what a delight for us to show that what we teach is understandable to them. They delight in discovering they comprehend more than they thought they would. The same can occur for any subject. It’s all in how far a teacher sets the plow setting. Basket weaving could be the most hated course in a school if students were expected to reach higher than they could possibly reach. The reputation of a course is in the hands of the teacher.
Is there something specific about physics that works so well?
Well, the physics, it turns out, is the simplest science. There's no other science underneath physics. Physics is the beginning. In terms of the sequences of sciences, physics begins that sequence. It is important that the flavor of physics is tasty, not distasteful. In a sense, the other sciences benefit from that.
And um, so being at the beginning, you know, Newton's Laws and that sort of thing, and why things float and buoyancy and flames and I mean, all this wonderful, wonderful thing that just of nature-- It's at the bottom. It's right at the bottom. And that's a nice place to, to put my efforts. And uh... What was your question again, though?
Or are you thinking of another one?
I was thinking of another one, now. Um. How well have you been in tune with overall theories in education? In other words, it seems like what you were responding to during your days at Lowell Tech was that people really didn't care much about education. There was the, there was the courses to teach, but there didn't seem to be a lot of thought into how they were being taught. These things sort of occurred to you yourself. It didn't seem like --
-- you were exposed to --
-- educational concepts --
No, at the--
-- you just came on, onto these ideas yourself.
Yeah, but as said earlier, I had a role model: Jacque Fresco, a master teacher. I’ve since then wanted to earn the same influence of seeing the value of science as Jacque did for me.
In your long career, now I think I'll make this my last question, because I think we've covered a lot here. What remains to be discovered? In all the things, in all the trends that you've seen, what are some of the big questions that, from you as an educator, remains as mysterious, if not more so, from when you got into this work?
I don't know. Technological progress has been impressive. When I see infants I tell their parents that their child will not know diabetes, cancer, and so many ills that humans have always endured. Medical advances are awesome. What other advances await us? We're at a point right now where we don't even know if there are other beings that think like us. I suspect they're everywhere, our there. Humans are still in their infancy, solvng social and political problems with yesterdays methods. We’re still growing. If we don’t wipe ourselved out by way of stupidity, there’s reason to hope the human adventure may turn out quite positive. What’s the value of thinking otherwise? The purpose we have, as Fresco used to say, is the purpose we asign to ourselves.
Alright. I think we'll, I think we'll wrap it there.