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President's Commentary (Spring 2005)
Richard Peterson
Announcer, Vol. 35, Iss. 1

A Cloud of Witnesses

In an article entitled "God’s Rays," which appeared in the January 2005 issue of Physics Today, Bryce DeWitt lamented that our culture no longer can draw with confidence upon once common phrases of biblical literature; perhaps, the following example can be added to DeWitt’s list. As AAPT members participate in the celebration of the World Year of Physics as well as prepare for their own 75th anniversary at the end of 2005, one is reminded of the historical reflections captured in Hebrews 12:1: "Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses … let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us."

In our more immediate context, this is surely a good time to ponder the values, wisdom, and strong leadership of those, such as Homer Dodge, Paul Klopsteg, Floyd Richtmyter, and others, who envisioned an organization that could focus on the enablement and inspiration of exemplary physics teaching and who struggled to form, sustain, and then build AAPT toward a future guided by those tenets that may still ring true.

The early Oersted and Richtmyer lectures—folks like Compton, Hall, Condon, Millikan, Rabi, and Sommerfeld—exemplify the AAPT founders, who were some of America’s best in physics.

Our Oersted Medal still strives to reward "notable contributions to the teaching of physics." In fact, Feynman once commented that he was personally most proud of his Oersted Medal.

The sixth Oersted, given in 1941, with war clouds on the horizon, went to the distinguished spectroscopist, textbook author, and classical scholar Henry Crew of Northwestern University. I believe he would have valued the physics pedagogical contributions of recent years. Crew argued strongly for the role of the "student-teacher" in his address, published in the American Journal of Physics, he said: "I am wondering whether the best teaching in physics is not a cooperative form of recreation, supervised by a student who can also teach" (his emphasis). "The fun of teaching is in building, along with the student; building both scholarship and character." (Crew and Sutton 1941, vol. 10), and this we still believe and seek to implement.

This past year we have lost a primary "witness" and an AAPT Historian of many years, Melba Phillips. As a physicist, writer, and teacher extraordinaire, she played a crucial role in sustaining AAPT through difficult times while still helping establish the warmth, egalitarian, and broadly inviting atmosphere that many value within AAPT to this day. She was quick to point out that the current problems faced in teaching physics have long been recognized–-if not solved. In a July 1989 AJP article, entitled "Are There Lessons from History?" she describes the results of a membership survey conducted in 1931 by President Homer Dodge. "There were demands for papers on apparatus, both laboratory and demonstration, new instructional methods, examinations and testing generally, student errors and misunderstandings … These problems were not new in 1931, and they are with us now," She concludes. "The teacher is undoubtedly the key … [and] there is no substitute for the teacher who can, by some method or combination of methods, get and keep the student involved in the subject."

We will miss Melba and her ability to bring this diverse organization together for a common goal.

Finally, I recall an AAPT Strategic Planning meeting five years ago that included drafting a more modern mission statement. We determined that AAPT’s mission is "to enhance the understanding and appreciation of physics through teaching."

The statement is as broad as our organization, and I like the challenge and the underlying assumption. It conveys our quest for fundamentally opening up the world to our students of all ages, while still being "student-teachers," who are continually learning new and effective perspectives within the physics we teach. One can picture Hans Christian Oersted actually "discovering" a magnetic field while demonstrating with a wire and current in front of high school or college students, who respond "That’s so cool!" One can also picture Henry Crew deeply treasuring the growth in scholarship and character of both modest and exceptional students. This is the real uniqueness—and great challenge—of AAPT, which has led to its special place in the U.S. physics community for 75 years. We are not ashamed to focus on student understanding while doing physics and having lots of fun. Those who participate in this fundamental "recreation" are, in the words of AAPT Past-President Howard Voss, "some of the luckiest folks on earth." So let’s press on together, knowing the broad concerns and perspectives that unite us.


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