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History–The Era of Experimentlists: 1911-1963

Reed ReactorThe Reed College Physics Department started small. Initially housed in Eliot Hall, it was staffed by one professor for the first 15 years of its existence. The first holder of that position, Karl Taylor Compton, was also the college’s first football coach.

After receiving his Bachelor’s degree from the College of Wooster, Compton experimented with the X-ray machine the College acquired in 1908–only 13 years after the discovery of X-rays. That work was the basis for his Master’s thesis in 1909, and led to the first paper from the College of Wooster published in the Physical Review,in 1910.

Compton received his PhD from Princeton and assumed a teaching position there, which he left to found the department at Reed. Compton’s next three articles came out in 1915, each with a co-author from Reed’s first class of physics graduates, reporting on their thesis projects. In this, Compton was beginning what would become a tradition in the department.

In 1918, Compton left Reed to return to Princeton, where in his years on the faculty he published 100 scientific papers on aspects of electron physics. In 1930, Compton became the president of MIT, a post he held until 1948. Meanwhile, in 1933, President Roosevelt appointed him chair of the Science Advisory Board, and in 1940 he was named director of the division of electronic devices for the National Defense Research Committee which mobilized research in support of the impending U.S. role in World War II. (Incidentally, his brother, Arthur Holly Compton, shared the 1927 Nobel Prize in physics for discovery of the eponymous "Compton effect.")

In the early days, the departmental library and freshman labs were housed in the basement of Eliot, the sophomore lab on the first floor, and offices on other floors. Although admitting that conditions were less than ideal, Dennis Hoffman, who joined the faculty in 1959, remembers those days in Eliot fondly. "We were crowded, but something was always going on. If you went to our library at 3 AM, someone was always there. Our proximity to one another promoted a sharing of ideas."

In 1915, Tony Knowlton arrived to take over from Compton. Knowlton had completed his undergraduate studies at Bates College and graduate studies at the University of Chicago under Albert Michelson, a Prussian-born U.S. citizen, who, in 1907, became the first U.S. citizen to win the Nobel Prize in a science, for his work with optical instruments such as the Michelson interferometer.

Before coming to Reed, Knowlton taught briefly at the University of Utah, but following a dispute with the university president, he was fired. According to his daughter, Ellen Johnson, this incident was the first case reviewed by the American Association of University Professors. Knowlton was the entire department until 1926, when he was joined by Marcus O’Day. He served on the faculty for a total of 33 years.

Knowlton was known for his innovative approach to teaching. The year he arrived at Reed, he taught a freshman class in special relativity, a subject then just 10 years old and not commonly taught at that level. In an introductory course taught during the early 1920s he took one question–what is the source of the sun’s energy?–as his organizing principle. After a focused tour of all the major principles of physics, he led his students to the conclusion that the sun had to be fueled by nuclear processes–this more than a decade before the detailed process had been worked out by Hans Bethe.

Knowlton’s contributions to the teaching of physics spread beyond Reed. He gained national reputation with his 1928 text Physics for College Students, published by McGraw-Hill, which influenced a generation of physics books, and he rose to national leadership of the American Association of Physics Teachers. In 1951, he was awarded their Oersted Medal for Notable Contributions to the Teaching of Physics.

In 1972, a Chair in Knowlton’s name was endowed by Phillip M. Wertheimer ’48, a former student of his and grandson of a founder of the Longview Fiber Company.

The department expanded in the 1940s. In 1942, Leo Seren was hired; William Lockwood Parker, Kenneth Edward Davis, and Laurence Seymour Germain followed in 1949.

With a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois, William Parker was hired to be departmental Chair in perpetuity. Parker rose to a position of leadership within the faculty of the College, but some considered him an inattentive administrator. Later the faculty adopted a policy whereby departmental chairs gain their office by election, and are limited to two consecutive two-year terms.

Parker specialized in teaching the course for first-year students. Toward the end of his career, after the college had acquired a nuclear reactor, he developed a research interest in the applications–especially the dental applications (which turned out to be unfeasible)–of neutron radiography. One of his prints was featured on the cover of Physics Today. He retired from the faculty in the 1970s.

Kenneth Davis shared an office with Parker until the department moved from Eliot Hall to its present building. An experimental physicist, Davis' initial research involved the use of balloon-borne photographic emulsions to study cosmic rays. Later he did work related to the solid state physics of phosphors, and several students joined him in working on those problems for their theses.

Davis was interested in education as well as physics, says Robert Reynolds, a later colleague. Davis took over administration of the Dual Degree Program, started in 1948, that was designed to let students take advantage of the physics program at Reed but transfer to an engineering program in their fourth year, graduating in five years with degrees from both institutions. This program was part of a post-war trend in which engineering schools began to encourage the admission of students with three years of prior liberal arts experience. Reed College’s first partners in what came to be called the "3-2 Program" were MIT (no longer part of the program), Cal Tech, Columbia University, and Rensselaer Poytechnic Institute. In the mid-1970s, Davis served a term as President of the American Association of Physics Teachers.

In the early 1950s, the college hired solid state physicist Fred Brown. He was, with the exception, perhaps, of Compton himself, the first experimental physicist in the department to feel a conflict between the demands of research and and those of teaching, and ultimately he left Reed to take a research position at the University of Illinois.

In 1950, the department hired Jean Delord, who would become an eminent and long-term member of the faculty. Delord had completed undergraduate/graduate engineering degrees at the University of Toulouse (1941) and University of Paris (1947). A resistance fighter in the French underground during WW II, he came to the University of Kansas for a PhD in physics in 1951. While finishing his thesis, he experienced problems with his visa. Parker, acting on his own initiative, was able to hire Delord because the college administration was not deterred by his ambiguous immigration status.

"The physics faculty was still small when I arrived–just Parker, Davis, and Germain," says Delord. "But I found the students exciting; also the math department, with whom we had many exchanges, and similarly the chemistry department under the direction of Arthur Scott. It was also an exciting era in physics, with Linus Pauling’s discoveries, as well as those in quantum physics and chemistry." Delord quickly became interested in the challenge of teaching, in particular of integrating post-war physics into the subjects taught to first and second year students. "I realized it required some thinking on the part of the instructor," Delord remembers.

"He brought the expectation of European excellence with him," recalls Nicholas Wheeler, who studied under Delord as an undergraduate and later became a colleague. "Many of us who experienced Jean’s teaching have devoted our careers to an attempt to rise to his standard." Jean’s influence is strikingly evident in the widely-adopted texts of Jerry Marion, who wrote his thesis with Davis, but was a student in Delord’s elegant "Physics 41," which was required of all seniors.

Searching for summer employment his first year in Portland, Delord approached Reed physics graduate and company founder Howard Vollum about a job at Tektronix. "Howard asked me if I knew electron optics. It happened that I had done work in the field while in Paris, so he hired me to work on cathode ray tubes. It was lots of fun, and, because it was a subject I knew, I could contribute right away," Delord remembers.

At summer’s end, Vollum wanted him to stay. Delord negotiated an arrangement with then-chair William Parker to teach half-time at Reed so that he could do both, and he continued to split his time until 1964, when at the College’s request he returned to teaching full-time. By the time he left Tektronix, Delord had established a research group there that employed 75 people. Delord voices one regret about that period: "I was unable to convince Howard Vollum that the future wasn’t in vacuum tubes but in semi-conductors," says Delord. "I tried, but he was a very determined man."

In the meantime, a number of Reed students profited from Delord’s connection with the company, opting to work under him on their theses in Tektronix’s better-equipped labs. Several of those went on later to work for the company. "Jean was always working on interesting ideas," remembers Bob Martin, "and many of those came from issues he encountered in his research at Tektronix."

Delord was the first occupant of the Knowlton Chair, through 1987.

Until the early 1960s, all Reed physics faculty had been trained as experimentalists, with one brief exception. Asim O. Barut was hired to replace Jean Delord, who was on leave during 1954-55. Barut’s early work (at the ETH in Zurich, to which he had gone as a visitor from his native Turkey) had been in electron optics, but after making youthful contributions to that field he decided to become a theorist, and to that end spent several years studying the physical applications of group theory at the University of Chicago. It was fresh from that experience that he came to Reed. After leaving Reed he at length came to rest at the University of Colorado, but was a frequent visitor at research centers around the world. He wrote prolifically on a great variety of topics, and came to be widely admired within the international theoretical physics community. Nicholas Wheeler is certain that "Barut was, without doubt, the greatest physicist ever to serve on the Reed College physics faculty. And he remained sentimentally attached to Reed throughout his life."

Robert Martin, a 1941 graduate of the department, joined the faculty in 1956, after graduate work at the University of Michigan. With support from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, Martin studied color centers in silver chloride during his years on the Reed faculty, and often students were summer assistants in this work. "Whether I worked in the summers or not, or published, was up to me," he recalls, "but if I wanted to get any research done, I had to be here." In 1961, Martin left Reed to join the faculty of Lewis and Clark College, where he was the department chair for 25 years, retiring in 1988. For the last few years he has remained active in a Reed laboratory which he shares with Jean Delord.

Experimental physicist Dennis Hoffman joined the department in 1959, as a ‘temporary break’ from working at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. He was attracted to Reed because it appeared so different that he thought it looked like "fun," even though the pay was less than half that offered by other colleges. Hoffman found that he liked Reed and liked teaching; he stayed until his retirement in 1990.

Hoffman’s PhD was in nuclear physics at the University of California at Berkeley. "At Reed, there weren’t too many opportunities to do nuclear physics," Hoffman remembers, "although when Reed acquired its reactor in 1968, I was the first health physicist for it, monitoring its output for safety."

"Also, I tried for several years to use relativity in a novel way to obtain Maxwell’s equations, but eventually somebody beat me to it. Then I did some summer work in solid state physics at Cal Tech," Hoffman says, "but I never did real research at Reed. I don’t remember any of us doing gung-ho research; there wasn’t pressure to publish. We were more interested in teaching. I spent my time developing material for class."

In the late 1950s, the National Science Foundation created the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) to bring science and math curricula up to date in secondary schools around the country. Kenneth Davis was one of the original participants; Hoffman and their colleague Byron Youtz were involved later. Once a week, high school physics teachers from around the state convened at Reed, for lectures and labs presented by faculty. New lessons were developed, tested by teachers, and brought back for revision. Finally a text was written, which Hoffman calls "the first good physics text for high school." Byron Youtz was in charge of developing the third edition of the book. (Youtz–a biophysicist–came to Reed in 1956, soon achieved prominence in faculty affairs, and served as interim college president from 1967 to 1968. He left Reed to become Provost at the State University of New York at Old Westbury, and he remained there for several years before moving on to the corresponding position at the newly established Evergreen State College in Olympia, where he also served as a founder of the physics program.) Hoffman reviewed textbooks for a state senator for many years, before his retirement. He reports that "the texts looked like PSSC model for many years."

In the early 1960s, as computers were just coming into academic use, Hoffman spent a summer at the University of Oklahoma working with them so that he could introduce them into the Junior Lab. The equipment available at the time was, by any standard, primitive, but it represents the first introduction of computers into the work of the department.

In 1968, the Physics Department finally left its original home in Eliot Hall to relocate in the newly built A. A. Knowlton Physics Building, an extension of the Biology facility. The Knowlton Building housed faculty offices, each with an attached laboratory, and originally had one lab for every one or two thesis students. That ratio has varied since, depending on the number of seniors in any given year and other pressures on the building’s space. For example, when networked computers were first introduced to the college, several rooms in Physics were temporarily dedicated to that program. Later, apparently permanent incursions into the department were made by the Biology Department, which by the late 1990s has taken over several rooms on different floors, to the tune of about 2000 square feet.

The Reed Physics Department
The Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
Era of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1987
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
Back to Science at Reed Reviews

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