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Alfred Morton Bork, Faculty

A picture of Alfred Bork

Prof. Alfred Bork (right) in 1973.

Alfred Morton Bork, December 18, 2007, from lymphoma. Al taught physics at Reed from 1963 to 1967. He earned his ScB and a commission in the U.S. Navy at Georgia Tech, and graduate degrees in physics at Brown. He was also fascinated by the history and philosophy of science. Nick Wheeler ’55 [physics 1963–] wrote: “I attended Al’s lectures, which were Socratic exercises of a purity I have never been able to approach. Standing in his typical pink pants and green shoes (!) before a class of 80 students, he would ask a simple-sounding question (“What is length?”) and then wait—patiently, 5 or 10 minutes, if necessary—for some brave student to venture a response. To which he would respond with an implied question . . . and another wait. He managed by this method to coax some remarkable statements from those students. I remember the time when he was discussing (in his inimitable way!) the three-dimensionality of space, when a student ventured the thought (a thought very much alive in the physics of 40 years later!) that perhaps space only seems three-dimensional. Al’s presumptions were (1) that such students are much more comfortable with language-based material than with material that requires some mathematical skill, but (2) that as high school students they did generally do well in geometry, that it was to algebra that they took exception, and of calculus that they remained largely ignorant. So he approached basic physics as an exercise in language. Newton’s De motu corporum in gyrum (written in 1684, just prior to the Principia Mathematica) was at the time available only in Latin. Al had a student with knowledge of Latin prepare an English translation, which the class took as its initial text. It contained certain Latin words with no obvious English equivalents, so they remained in Latin; class had to figure out their evident meaning from the physics into which they entered. De Motu is concerned mainly with planetary motion, which Newton approached by cunning geometrical analysis (since he could not at the time expect his readers to know calculus). The geometry gave rise to an algorithm that served to increment a planet along on its orbit. Al had students use the algorithm to work out the motion of a planet—a tediously routine business concerning which students (not unexpectedly, actually by Al’s intention) complained. So, he had them write programs that would serve to instruct a secretary how to do the work. Reed had, at the time, just acquired its first computer—an IBM 1600 that together with its card readers, etc., filled a large room down the hall from our office. Al knew some Fortran, taught the students enough Fortran (again: a language!) to enable them to program the computer (rather than the secretary) to generate planetary orbits. And, by analysis of those orbits, to follow Kepler’s path to discovery—now their own discoveries!—of Kepler’s laws (which had served as Newton’s primary motivation). Reed’s NatSci students were, by spring, doing things that Reed’s fourth-year physics majors were unable to do! And were aware that they had been led by Al on an intellectual adventure of the first order.” After Reed, Al went to University of California, Irvine, where he held joint appointments in physics and and computer science. Passionate about the use of computers in education, he pioneered the development of computer-based learning material for science and mathematics and founded Irvine’s educational technology center. He was a National Science Foundation Chautauqua Lecturer and won the Robert A. Millikan Award from the American Association of Physics Teachers. Al was an outdoor enthusiast, an avid gardener, and loved classical music, art, and literature. Survivors include his wife of nearly 60 years, Annette; and three daughters, including Ellen, who provided the details for this memorial.

Appeared in Reed magazine: June 2012

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