John S. Rigden

John S. Rigden - Obituary

November 24, 2017

John S. Rigden was born in Painesville, Ohio, on January 10, 1934, and died of cardiac arrest at St. Luke’s Hospital in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 24, 2017, at age 83. He is survived by his wife Diana of thirty-two years, his first wife Dorothy, six children, nineteen grandchildren, and eleven great-grandchildren. Interment was at Oak Hill Cemetery in Kirkwood, Missouri.

John received his B.S. cum laude from Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Massachusetts, in 1956 and his Ph.D. in Physics from The Johns Hopkins University in 1960. He was a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at Harvard University (1960-61) and returned to Eastern Nazarene College as Assistant and Associate Professor of Physics (1961-67). He then was a Staff Physicist on Harvard Project Physics (1966-67). He returned to academia as Associate Professor of Physics at Middlebury College (1967-68) and then rose from Associate to Full Professor of Physics at the University of Missouri in St. Louis (1968-90), serving as Chairman of the Department of Physics for three years (1975-78). He spent a year as a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Physics at Harvard University (1982-83). He left academia to become Director of Physics Programs (1987-97) and Director of Special Projects (1997-2003) at the American Institute of Physics in New York and College Park, Maryland. He took a leave in 1992 to become Director of the National Science Education Standards at the National Academy of Sciences. He was appointed Honorary Professor of Physics at Washington University in St. Louis in 2003.

John recognized early in his career that his deepest intellectual interests lay in the educational, cultural, and historical aspects of physics and in communicating them to teachers, students, and the public. He was an early riser, hard worker, and loved to write. He published over two dozen papers in refereed journals and over seventy invited papers and other contributions in journals, magazines, and newspapers. He also wrote four outstanding scholarly books:

   Physics and the Sound of Music (John Wiley, 1977; 2nd edition, 1985)
   Rabi: Scientist and Citizen (Basic Books, 1987; Harvard University Press, 2000, with a new Preface). He published five related historical articles on Rabi, space quantization, and nuclear magnetic resonance.
   Hydrogen: The Essential Element (Harvard University Press, 2002); translated into Japanese and Korean. It was named as one of the 20 best science books in 2002 by Discover magazine. He also published two related historical articles.
   Einstein, 1905: The Standard of Greatness (Harvard University Press, 2005); translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean. It was widely and enthusiastically received.

He co-edited two books: Most of the Good Stuff: Memories of Richard Feynman (Springer-Verlag 1993), for which he also wrote one of its chapters, and Physics in the Twentieth Century (Harry N. Abrams 1999) on the centennial of the American Physical Society, for which he selected many of its pictures. He also was Editor-in Chief of the four-volume Encyclopedia of Physics (Macmillan 1996) and of the Encyclopedia of Elementary Particle Physics (Macmillan 2003).

Most significantly, John served as Editor of the American Journal of Physics for ten years (1978-88), for which he wrote 100 timely Editorials and oversaw the publication of many historical and cultural articles. The American Association of Physics Teachers recognized his extraordinary contributions by awarding him a Distinguished Service Citation in 1989.

John also co-founded and co-edited (with me) the journal Physics in Perspective for 15 years (1999-2013), for which he wrote 34 Editorials and 7 Book Notes. Perhaps the most remarkable endorsement we received was that a Harvard librarian told us that this was the most read journal in his library and hence the most stolen one, so he had to keep it in his office for safekeeping.  

John was a brilliant and captivating lecturer, which brought him over 200 invitations to speak on historical, educational, and physical topics at colleges, universities, and conferences in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Germany, Egypt, Israel, Sweden, and Italy. He thus became an ambassador of good will for the United States, as he was when he served as consultant to physics educational projects in India (1968-69, 1991), Malaysia (1970), and Japan (1971), and when he was a Fulbright Fellow in Burma (1971) and Uruguay (1975).

John was elected a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1989, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society in 1998, “In recognition of his distinguished historical research, and his devotion to the advancement of physics through education, administration, and public service.” He received the Robert A. Millikan Award of the American Association of Physics Teacher in 2005, “For his many innovative and creative contributions to the teaching and history of physics.” He received the Andrew Gemant Award of the American Institute of Physics in 2008, “For a lifetime of enlightenment of physicists and the public. As a teacher, researcher, scholar, writer and editor, he has been an Ambassador of good will for the physics community par excellence.”

John Rigden’s life and work enriched the lives and work of a vast array of friends and colleagues on an international scale. He was my closest friend, both personally and professionally. I miss him terribly.

Roger H. Stuewer
University of Minnesota



David Wolfe

Director of Communications