Physics

Richard CrandallRichard E. Crandall (1947-2012)

We grieve the loss of a colleague and friend whose eccentric genius has for 45 years enriched the lives not only of departmental students and faculty but—more recently—an ever-expanding international circle of distinguished peers and (because at least four of his inventions inhabit the iPhone) untold numbers of plain folks, a thought which would give him a special pleasure to contemplate. Richard E. Crandall (1947-2012) entered Reed College in September 1967 as a 3rd-year transfer student (from Caltech, where he had attended lectures of Richard Feynman). In April 1969 he confessed embarrassedly (but—fast worker that he even then was—not much concern) to Nicholas Wheeler (his advisor) that he had left the draft of his thesis in Lutz’s Tavern, from which it had vanished. Recovered from that misadventure, and on completion of his thesis oral, he reported that he had—unbeknownst to anybody—written also a second thesis, in mathematics. So a second oral was hurriedly arranged; that thesis was signed by John Leadley. Altogether, he contributed to (by his count) the thesis projects of eight of his physics/math classmates. Ideas and well worked-out computational details seem always to have come as naturally to Richard as breathing, and he was always happy to share the fruit of his imagination.

Richard did his graduate work at MIT, where he developed a particular admiration for Victor Weisskopf and his ability to construct rough-and-ready back-of-an-envelope estimates of physical numbers (latent heat of ice, maximal height of mountains, etc.). While at MIT, Richard made it a habit to return—always by train (he had a fear of flying)—once or twice each year to Reed, to “recharge my batteries,” as he said.

Richard always had a strong entrepreneurial instinct, and while a graduate student created several companies to manufacture and install security devices of his own design. Those assets—and the services of Richard himself—were acquired by a corporation concerned with the management of commercial buildings, so with PhD in hand he spent some time in an office high in the RCA building in New York, designing computerized fire-safety and energy-control systems for use in skyscrapers. When “Towering Inferno” hit the screens he was interviewed by People magazine, who wanted to know whether such catastrophes could really happen. The story appeared with one column of text and a one-column photo of Richard, in elegant pin-stripe suit and vest ... and untied tennis shoes.

After returning to Portland in 1977 Richard (who had at some early point acquired remarkable electronics skills) worked briefly as a circuit designer for ESI, a local electrical standards company. There it became his habit, when given an assignment, to produce a working model within a week or so, which did not endear him to his co-workers, who typically took a much more leisurely approach to the completion of their assignments; they—a development in which Richard took some devilish pride—invented the “crandall” as the “unit measure of obnoxiousness.” Richard’s “crandall number” is unreported (in some quarters it may have been fairly high: Richard did not suffer fools graciously), but he did report with pride that his Erdös number was 2.

In the fall of 1979 Richard accepted an appointment to the Reed physics faculty as a “visiting experimentalist” (in the same search that brought David Griffiths as a tenure-track theorist). Students will remember the fresh imagination he brought to that assignment. In the spring—in an effort to acquaint students with the commercial real world some of them were destined to enter—he divided the class into teams, each charged with responsibility of designing and fabricating a component of a system to transmit computer data from the physics building to Eliot Hall, where the IBM 1600 was located. Rain presented a problem, but not so great as the branches of the trees that had just been planted at Eliot Circle; the department acquired tree-trimming equipment to keep the optical path clear. Richard also conceived a plan to design inexpensive bench-top experiments to measure the fundamental constants. One thesis project measured the “mass of the photon” (accuracy of Coulomb’s law) with a precision that remained unsurpassed for thirty years.

Richard’s interest in computers (sparked originally by his desire to be of assistance to a girlfriend) developed during the 1970s. He returned to the faculty at a time when students were using a confusing variety of languages (Fortran, Basic, others) to do their work. It was on Richard’s recommendation that the department adopted Pascal as the official language of instruction, and it was in preparation for that transition that he devoted the weeks before his actual start-up date to write the notes that became Pascal Applications for the Sciences (1983).

The Macintosh computer was introduced in January 1984, and Richard immediately recognized its potential. Richard and Steve Jobs’ Reed days had not overlapped, but they soon became fast friends; it was very likely Richard’s influence that led Jobs to include Reed as the only undergraduate institution on the short list of universities at which he proposed to demonstrate the educational potential of personal computers. Richard took a three-year leave from his teaching duties to design and superintend the computerization of Reed (those were the days when all computer offices, shops and storage rooms were located within the physics building, and when the sweatshirts worn by students read “Atheism, Communism, Free Computers”). Upon completion of that effort, Richard taught only briefly before retiring from the faculty (as perhaps the youngest retiree in the history of the college) to work with Jobs as Chief Cryptographer at Apple and Chief Scientist at NeXT.

When, in 1987, Richard learned that Stephen Wolfram was preparing to release Mathematica 1.0 he arranged to meet with Wolfram to suggest features for inclusion. An enduring friendship ensued, Richard became an enthusiastic advocate of the software, and in 1991 published Mathematica for the Sciences. With that new tool at his disposal, and stimulated by the commercial needs of Apple, Richard busied himself with the invention of algorithms for the efficient manipulation of very large numbers, image compression (which played a major role in the realization of “Toy Story” and other Pixar productions), encryption and signal analysis. And he continued to produce papers dealing with quantum mechanics (path integrals, reflectionless potentials, the quantum zeta function), mathematical applications to biology and epidemiology and especially number theory. His monumental Prime Numbers: A Computational Perspective (co-authored by Carl Pomerance) appeared in 2001, and has reportedly come to be known among number theorists as “The Bible.” Readers can consult his website to gain a more detailed sense of the variety of his accomplishments.

Richard was a man of so many parts, and such diverse talents, that no person can claim to have known the whole of him. He was an able magician and a fine amateur chess player. His successive bands—in which Richard played an instrument of his own design that he called “The Albatross”—were popular at student gatherings around town. One summer evening Wheeler remarked that he had access to a recital hall with a fine grand piano. “Show me,” commanded Richard, who tested the piano by playing—from memory—a movement from a Beethoven sonata. For several years he regularly accompanied Marvin Levich to Portland Wrestling events. There were pool halls and taverns scattered about the city where he was known as “The Professor” by citizens who were entirely ignorant of his scientific accomplishments. And there were waitresses at Ye Olde Towne Crier who knew him only as the grouchy guy who night after night did calculations in a corner booth. Some students knew him mainly as a Spirit Mountain gambling companion, or the friend with whom they could share outrageous jokes and challenging conversations at Lutz’s.

Richard always arranged to enjoy the services of a paid staff (which at one point included a driver in livery who delivered him to campus and home again each day in his personal limousine). He employed many students and alumni over the years, and most—once they had learned to accommodate his eccentric ways—came away from the experience with a heady sense of accomplishment and of their own creative potential.

Richard could be abrupt, but was at the same time a very sentimental man, utterly loyal to his friends. At his final physics seminar (24 October 2012) he went out of his way to attribute his remarkable results to an insight provided by Jean Delord. Though brusk of manner, his writings provide many instances of a courtly elegance and antique formality, a voice which is easily identifiable even in books and papers written with co-authors.

Richard was productive and full of plans (most notably, an “intellectual biography” of Steve Jobs, a project which he had been encouraged to undertake by Jobs’ widow) to within only a few days of his unanticipated death. He was rushed on December 11th to the ICU at OHSU, and died—of leukemia—on the morning of the 20th, less than a week before his 65th birthday. He left behind a younger brother Gary (who attributes to Richard his initial interest and present success in elecronics); his former wife Tess, to whom he remained protectively close, and a 14-yer-old daughter Ellen, of whom he was enormously proud, and to the rearing of whom he gave much eccentrically creative thought. He declined repeated invitations to work at distinguished institutions in remote places so that he could remain close to his family. His passing leaves an enormous hole in the lives of those who were privileged to know this or that bit of him.

 

Nicholas Wheeler (`55)

A. A. Knowlton Professor Emeritus