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The Reed Physics Department

The Reed Physics Department, founded the year the college opened in 1911, was a one-man operation for 15 years, expanding again after World War II. Today the department consists of six faculty and graduates between 15 and 20 students per year, a consistently high number for a department–and a college–Reed’s size.

The structure of an education in physics at Reed, as in all departments, is in part defined by the requirements of the Junior Qualifying Exam and the Senior Thesis, which resemble closely the experiences of graduate school. The thesis, in particular, puts research at the heart of the student’s experience and places unique demands on faculty.

The Physics department is distinct among the sciences at Reed by the split nature of the discipline, with theoretical physics at one end and experimental physics at the other. There are attendant distinct approaches to research. At times the department has been dominated by practitioners of one or the other; in recent years there has been a conscious effort to find balance between the two.

The Reed Physics Department was founded by Karl Compton, who later went on to eminence as President of MIT. The banner dropped by Compton was picked up by Ansel (Tony) Knowlton, a critical thinker and innovative teacher. Since Knowlton’s day, faculty have continued to contribute to the world beyond Reed, primarily by means of a focus on excellence in teaching, whether through the quality and quantity of attention paid to Reed undergraduates, the creation of text books for wider application, or involvement in physics education beyond Reed.

Graduates of the department include a Representative for the state of Alaska (John Davies ’67), the owner of Blue Heron Farm (Peter Dinsdale ’68) and the musical director of "Silver Strings" (Tillman Schafer ’41), but these are exceptions. Most graduates go on to careers in the sciences at such research institutions as the Los Alamos, Jefferson, and Lawrence Livermore National Labs, NASA, the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center; universities such as Yale, Rutgers, and the various campuses of the University of California; and companies such as Lockheed, Dupont, Microsoft, and McDonnell Douglas. (Davies himself had a distinguished career in geophysics before going into politics.)

The Reed Physics Department
The Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
The Era of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1897
Achieving Balance: 1987-Present
Academic Structure and Issues
Junior Qual
Senior Thesis
The Role of Research and the Integration of Research and Teaching
The Curriculum
Relations with Students
Teaching Style
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