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 colleges first football
receiving his Bachelors degree from the College of Wooster,
Compton experimented with the X-ray machine the College acquired
in 1908only 13 years after the discovery of X-rays.
That work was the basis for his Masters thesis in 1909,
and led to the first paper from the College of Wooster published
in the Physical Review,in 1910.
received his PhD from Princeton and assumed a teaching position
there, which he left to found the department at Reed. Comptons
next three articles came out in 1915, each with a co-author
from Reeds first class of physics graduates, reporting
on their thesis projects. In this, Compton was beginning what
would become a tradition in the department.
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.")
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
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
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 ODay. He served
on the faculty for a total of 33 years.
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 questionwhat is the source
of the suns 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 processesthis more than a decade
before the detailed process had been worked out by Hans Bethe.
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.
1972, a Chair in Knowltons name was endowed by Phillip
M. Wertheimer 48, a former student of his and grandson
of a founder of the Longview Fiber Company.
department expanded in the 1940s. In 1942, Leo Seren was hired;
William Lockwood Parker, Kenneth Edward Davis, and Laurence
Seymour Germain followed in 1949.
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
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
applicationsespecially 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.
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
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 Colleges
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.
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.
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.
physics faculty was still small when I arrivedjust 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 Paulings 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.
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
Jeans teaching have devoted our careers to an attempt
to rise to his standard." Jeans influence is strikingly
evident in the widely-adopted texts of Jerry Marion, who wrote
his thesis with Davis, but was a student in Delords
elegant "Physics 41," which was required of all
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.
summers 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 Colleges 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 wasnt
in vacuum tubes but in semi-conductors," says Delord.
"I tried, but he was a very determined man."
the meantime, a number of Reed students profited from Delords
connection with the company, opting to work under him on their
theses in Tektronixs 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."
was the first occupant of the Knowlton Chair, through 1987.
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. Baruts 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."
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.
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.
PhD was in nuclear physics at the University of California
at Berkeley. "At Reed, there werent 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."
I tried for several years to use relativity in a novel way
to obtain Maxwells 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 dont remember any of us
doing gung-ho research; there wasnt pressure to publish.
We were more interested in teaching. I spent my time developing
material for class."
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. (Youtza biophysicistcame 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
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.
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 buildings 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.
Reed Physics Department
Era of Experimentalists: 1911-1963
of Theoretical Physics: 1963-1987
The Role of Research
and the Integration of Research and Teaching
Relations with Students
Back to Science at Reed Reviews