Sallyportal: Madly Blogging Reed

Remembering Prof. Crandall

Prof Richard Crandall ’69 [physics 1978-2012]

At yesterday's faculty meeting, Prof. Mary James read a moving tribute to the late Prof. Richard Crandall ’69, written by Prof. Nick Wheeler ’55.

Wheeler, who was Crandall's thesis adviser at Reed during Crandall's student days, and later served alongside him on the physics faculty, calls it an "informal remembrance," but it's so good that we just had to reprint it here . . . 

A Tribute to Richard E. Crandall

Among the many faculty who have served with celebrated distinction on its faculty during Reed College’s first century, it would be difficult or impossible to name an individual who has contributed more significantly to a greater variety of disciplines than did Richard E. Crandall, who died on 20 December 2012 at the age of 64, of acute myeloid leukemia.

Richard came to Reed in the fall of 1967 as a third-year transfer from Caltech, at the suggestion of a boyhood friend who was then a mathematics major at Reed. At Caltech, Richard had attended classes taught by Richard Feynman, who—both stylistically and substantively—exerted a lifelong influence upon much of Richard’s work. At Reed, Richard wrote—then lost at Lutz’s Tavern, then redrafted—a physics thesis written under the direction of Professor Nicholas Wheeler and also—unbeknownst to anybody—a second thesis in mathematics, which was signed by Professor John Leadley. Additionally, he contributed to—by his own count—the theses of eight of his friends.

Richard took his doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his advisor (and second lifelong influence) was Victor Weisskopf. Through Weisskopf—who did postdoctoral work with Heisenberg, Schrödinger, and Pauli—Richard could trace his intellectual ancestry directly to the founding fathers of quantum mechanics.

While still a graduate student, Richard—who always harbored a strong entrepreneurial proclivity—created three firms concerned with the design, manufacture and installation of security systems. Those firms were acquired by a major corporation concerned with the ergonomic management of skyscrapers, so for a time he inhabited an office high in Manhattan’s RCA building. After returning to Portland he cofounded, with Jean Delord of the physics faculty, a firm that designed, built and sold modems. And still later he created Perfectly Scientific, Inc., a firm that marketed special-purpose algorithms and provided scientific consulting services. And collaterally: PSI Press, a novel (mainly technical) print-on-demand publishing house.

Richard came to the Reed faculty in 1978 as a visiting experimental physicist—fruit of the same search that brought David Griffiths to the physics faculty as a theorist. When he recommended Richard's appointment, Wheeler recalled Bertrand Russell’s remark that “Getting to know Wittgenstein had been the great intellectual adventure of his life,” and speculated that many students and faculty at Reed had a similar adventure in prospect. So it proved to be. Richard retired from the physics faculty in 1992 as Howard Vollum Professor of Science. Until his death he served as Vollum Adjoint Professor of Science and also as founding Director of the Reed College Center for Advanced Computation. During the years 1983-1987 he (on leave from the physics faculty) directed the 5-Year Master Plan for Computer Resources, which brought about the “computerization” of the Reed campus.

Richard’s classes were always freshly conceived, often radically original (and often taught at strange nocturnal hours). For example: he divided his Junior Lab class into teams, each charged with designing and constructing this or that component of a system to send computer data by optical link from the physics building to Eliot Hall (then the site of the IBM 1600 mainframe). With thesis students he devised novel methods to measure the fundamental constants of physics. A bench-top measurement of the mass of the photon (accuracy of Coulomb’s Law) remained the most precise on record for more than twenty years. Richard was unapologetically dismissive of students who approached their work in a perfunctory way, but gave himself heart and soul to students who showed a spark of creativity, on whose behalf he often worked through the night.

Richard’s Reed career did not overlap that of Steve Jobs, but when the first Mac computers appeared on the scene he made it a point to meet Jobs, with whom he became fast friends (a circumstance that inspired his effort to achieve the computerization of the Reed campus). After his retirement from the faculty he became the first Research Director at Apple. At least five of his algorithms are folded into the operation of the iPhone, and his data compression algorithms proved essential to the success of Pixar. At the time of his death he was planning work on an intellectual biography of Jobs, for which he had been commissioned by Jobs’ widow.

Richard was also quick to appreciate the potential of Mathematica, the computational engine devised by Stephen Wolfram. He developed a friendship with Wolfram, suggested many software improvements, and wrote several books intended to demonstrate to the scientific community the power of the tool that Wolfram had provided.

Richard Crandall—who could be as dismissively abrupt as he could be ingratiating—was by turns a raconteur, a magician, a chess expert, a musician (played the “Albatross,” an instrument of his own invention, but was also once seen to play from memory a movement of a Beethoven sonata), a superb mathematical physicist (and special friend of the physical applications of higher functions), a self-taught virtuoso at the design of electronic circuits, the inventor of computer algorithms (especially for data compression, cryptography and the management of very large numbers) that today enjoy wide use, an internationally recognized expert in number theory (coauthor with Carl Pomerance of the definitive “Prime Numbers: A Numerical Perspective,” known as the “Black Bible” among number theorists: since Pomerance coauthored papers with the great Paul Erdös this gave Crandall an “Erdös Number” of 2) and had made novel contributions to mathematical chemistry and biology. Richard held 17 patents, and was the author of eight books (including “A Network Orange: Logic & Responsibility in the Computer Age,” a collection of essays written jointly with Professor Marvin Levich). At the time of his death more than 20 papers were in press.

Richard had a knack for inspiring seemingly lackluster students (whom it was his habit to hire as assistants) to gain a sense of their own creative potential. He was a supportive husband and doting father. And loyal friend, in his many parts, of an amazing diversity of friends, as was evident to anyone who attended the memorial service which took place in the Chapel on 26 January 2013.

The college may have to wait another century to see again the like of Richard Crandall—taken before his time, and whom we sorely miss.

Submitted on behalf of the Physics Department by Prof. Nicholas Wheeler ’55

November 11, 2013

Read more about the life and times of Prof. Crandall in The Experimental Polymath.

Tags: physics, professors, computing, number theory