Photo: Rex Ziak

"In conference, you might have to go to the board and redo a homework problem. Redo the problem completely, without using your notes."

Sounds terrifying.

"It's not," Kathy says. "You're supposed to help the person at the board. If Eli gets stuck, David will say, 'Eli is just holding the chalk.' It becomes a group thing."

"He lectures without notes."

"Which is amazing."

"Which is just an extension," says Kathy, "of the idea that if we have to do it without notes, he does too."

"Also his personality," Kate says.

"When my mom and I visited, David talked to us for an hour, an hour and a half. As soon as we left, Mom said, 'That's who you want for your adviser.'"

"Good call."

"He'll throw little jokes into his lectures. I don't know. He was telling about quarks? He said two kinds of quarks are called top and bottom, t. and b. They used to be called truth and beauty, but there's not enough of that to go around any more."

"Or if you're marooned on a desert island. . . ."

"Oh, yes. If you were stranded on a desert island and needed to know the radius of a hydrogen atom, you'd want to use the Bohr formula."

"Without missing a beat. He goes right on with his lecture, and we're looking at each other. What?"

"A friend of mine at U.W. used David's electrodynamics book. He said, 'You took physics from David Griffiths?' And here you can talk to him any time. The first day of class he gave out his home phone number."

"He had the electricity and magnetism class at his house for breakfast and just kept feeding us. Have another waffle. Another waffle. You have to say stop."

"Oh, you know what?" says Kathy, to Kate. "We were eating waffles, Tess and I, and he told us this story about when he was teaching at [a well-known women's college]. The department head called him in and said, 'David, I want to talk to you about your teaching.' Very grave. This guy, the department head, told him, 'When you're teaching women, David, you have to realize--they can't visualize things in three dimensions.'"

Kate chokes on her Snapple at this idea, at the hilarity of Kathy reporting David reporting this idea.

Too funny.

On the walk back to the physics department, Kate is still wound up. She can't remember who told her, but in orientation week she'd had second thoughts about whether or not she was up to physics with David Griffiths. She had sought the advice of an upperclassman.

"What he told me," she recalls, "is that David Griffiths could teach physics to gerbils."

Robin Cody, formerly dean of admission at Reed, is the author of Ricochet River, a novel, and Voyage of a Summer Sun: Canoeing the Columbia River.
David Griffiths, Howard Vollum Professor of Science, physics, has been a member of the Reed faculty since 1978. He is the 1997 recipient of the Robert A. Millikan Medal, given annually since 1964 by the American Association of Physics Teachers for "notable and creative contributions to the teaching of physics." Griffiths received a $4,000 award and an inscribed silver medal at the association's annual summer meeting at the University of Denver. He presented a major address as part of the session.

Last year's winner of the Millikan Medal was a Reed alumna: Priscilla Watson Laws '61, of Dickinson College. Past winners have taught at schools that include MIT, Harvard, and Carnegie Mellon.

Griffiths graduated from Harvard University magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa in 1964. He continued studying physics there and received his Ph.D. in 1970. In addition to writing Introduction to Elementary Particles , Griffiths is the author of Introduction to Electrodynamics (Prentice Hall, 1981), Introduction to Quantum Mechanics (Prentice Hall, 1994), and numerous articles and papers. He is the recipient of many awards, including a Sears-Roebuck Foundation Teaching Excellence and Campus Leadership Award in 1991, chosen by his colleagues on the basis of his excellence in teaching and outstanding leadership. Griffiths has been an associate editor of the American Journal of Physics since 1986.

Home Page
Home Page