Beyond Reed, the physics-learning world knows Griffiths for his three undergraduate textbooks: on electrodynamics, quantum mechanics, and elementary particles. Like his classroom teaching, the books illuminate topics that to him are simply too exciting and important to save for graduate school. To the subject--what the world is made of--he applies vivid language and a sense of story.

From his Introduction to Elementary Particles (1987, Harper & Row):

"My first job, then, is to introduce you to the various kinds of elementary particles, the actors, if you will, in the drama. I could simply list them, and tell you their properties (mass, electric charge, spin, etc.), but I think it is better in this case to adopt a historical perspective, and explain how each particle first came on the scene. This will serve to endow them with character and personality, making them easier to re-member and more interesting to watch."

Criticized when it came out for its informal tone and--gasp!--first-person narrative, this text today engages physics students across America and, in translation, in Turkey, Greece, and Korea.

David Griffiths prepped at the Putney School in Southern Vermont and went to Harvard for his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. Because his best friend had gone from Putney to Reed, Griffiths knew a lot about Reed. Reedies hung around his Cambridge apartment.

"After ten years at Harvard," says his wife, Terry, who met David there, "and seven years of postdocs and filling sabbatical positions, David knew where he wanted to teach. Every year he wrote to Reed--Here's who I am--and every year he got a perfunctory reply. He pictured his letters disappearing into Reed's circular file."

On a family trip in the summer of 1975 the Griffiths drove to Portland, to Reed, and David knocked on the door of Nicholas Wheeler '55, A.A. Knowlton Professor of Physics at Reed. The two had a long talk while Terry, pregnant with son Tim, sat on the lawn with three-year-old Jennifer. A year later came an opening at Reed, but in experimental physics, not his field. David accepted a tenure-track position at Trinity College in Connecticut. The Griffiths bought a house in Hartford.

"At Trinity's spring break," Terry says, "David wrote another letter to Reed. I'm going to be in the area anyway. Can I drop by and give a talk? I was ticked off at him. I'm an easterner. I was ready to put down roots. He never would have been 'in the area' if they hadn't said yes."

Reed said yes.

David paid his way to Portland and gave his talk.

"He was ecstatic when they hired him. Reed was David's holy grail. A place that valued good teaching."

Mary James, again, at home on a summer morning, on David Griffiths:

"He has a sense of what's important and an ability to keep what's important at the center of students' focus. In science, it's easy to get lost in details. The only criticism I've heard was at an annual meeting of physicists. Someone said he didn't like David's book because it makes the subject too simple. The book is so graceful in its presentation, the students don't realize that the calculations can be cumbersome.

"No, really. That's a valid criticism. Students can see the big ideas, but can they run the machinery?

"David's can.

"He believes you don't really understand something until you can explain it to someone else. It's in David's selfish interest to be clear. And one thing about clarity. You can't fool anybody. Any clutter in your own mind becomes embarrassingly evident.

Next Page
Next Page