Alumni Stories

Read amusing stories from our alumni about their experiences in the School.

Juggling football and physics

excerpt taken from Meet College of Sciences Alumnus Willie Rockward, Chair of Physics at Morehouse College

What is the most important thing you learned while at Georgia Tech?

Hard work always pays off. Tech professors pushed us to make choices that reflect what we want to do.

For example, in fall 1990, the Yellow Jackets were undefeated. I had classical mechanics at 8:30 a.m. on Mondays, and Dr. Raymond Flannery would always give an assignment on the Friday before. The homework was so difficult that you could not afford to attend a weekend football game.

We thought he was being mean. But I realized that for him, if you really want to do physics, you will make the sacrifices to do well. It’s the same lesson I teach my students and children.

Dr. Flannery also gave me confidence. When I didn’t pass my comprehensives the first time, he told me, “Rockward, I know you can do it. Hold your head up, study and work hard, you’ll do well next time.” I couldn’t believe hearing those words from him. His gave me confidence to keep pressing forward.

I remember Dr. Brian Kennedy. He taught courses in electricity and magnetism. Very young then, he presented the subject so simply that I had a “born again” experience that opened my complete understanding of Maxwell’s equations.

I got married while at Tech. Starting a family slowed my studies, but I learned that academia gives you flexibility of time. You can select the time to use for family and work.

Very large numbers indeed

submitted by Nathan Meehan (Physics `75)

When I was a physics student at Georgia Tech, my quantum mechanics professor (Dr. Helmut Biritz) would do something on tests that he actually thought was helpful. Some of us disagreed. I recall one question. “Calculate the angular momentum of the earth (no credit if off by more than 10^2).  OK, we could get credit as long as our answers weren’t off by more than a factor of 100! I can guess a lot of things within a factor of 100, but the earth’s angular momentum isn’t one of them. He was the man that pointed out to me in 1974 that a year was approximately π*10^7 seconds. From this I concluded that π seconds was a nanocentury. The first time I had coined a unit of measure[1].

I did magic tricks as a student. Professor Biritz noted that when I had chosen a specific card out of the deck that the probability was 1/52nd even if I wasn’t using any sort of trick. He then proposed to do a trick for us no one had ever done or could ever repeat. He shuffled the deck about five times and claimed that no one had ever arranged the cards in that order and that if every human shuffled cards constantly for the next thousand years that no one could accidentally achieve the same order.

We were intrigued and went to our chalkboard. We quickly realized that this is the same problem as someone guessing all 52 cards in a random deck in order. So, if we start with a random deck, the odds of ‘guessing’ the first card are 1/52 or about 1.923%. The odds of then guessing the next one is 1/51. The combined odds of guessing them both is (1/52)*(1/51) or one chance in 2652. Five cards in a row is (1/52)*(1/51)*(1/50)*(1/49)*(1/48) or one chance in 311,875,200. This is hard to do but it is only twice as hard as winning the POWERBALL lottery.

As the deck gets smaller, the odds of picking the next card improve slightly but the cumulative probability of getting them all right rapidly becomes mind boggling. By the time you have picked eleven cards correctly, you have overcome odds of one in more than 10^18.  The number of grains of sand on all the beaches of the world is about 10^18.  By the time you have picked fourteen cards correctly, the odds you have overcome are more than one in 10^23. The number of all the stars in the universe is in that range…10^23.  And you have just picked a little more than one fourth of the cards.

Keep going and by the time you have picked the 50th card things get easier. The next card is 50/50 and the 52nd card should be a slam dunk if you have been keeping track. But the odds of doing this are the same as two random series of shuffles resulting in the same sequence. One chance in 8*10^67.  Turns out that 10^66 has a name. Unvingtillion. One chance in 80 unvingtillion of guessing them all.

What about my Professor’s claim? We have just over 7 billion people. Let’s say they can shuffle a deck once per second. One thousand years is π*10^10 seconds. So, 7*10^9 * π*10^10  is about 2.2*10^20. Not even close.

The current estimate for the age of the universe is 13.7 billion years (13.7 million millennia). So if the earth’s entire population had been shuffling those decks since the big bang, we would only have come up with 3*10^27 shuffles. Nowhere close enough to accomplish the task. You might argue that any two shuffles could come up with the same deck and that is theoretically true. But the odds of doing it are “astronomical” indeed.

By the way, I do this trick. But I use ‘magic’.
[1] Don’t email me pointing out anybody who came up with that before me. I do not doubt someone did, I just don’t want to hear about it.

Dr. Petronis and the "Curve"

Submitted by Roger Byrd (BS 1972)

Once, just after a particularly gut-wrenching exam, a student plaintively asked Professor Petronis whether his policy was to convert test scores to course grades using a curve, presumably rather than requiring a score above 70 to get a passing grade. In those days, strict adherence to numerical scores was referred to as having a "steep curve." Petronis looked up, and without missing a beat, he replied something like, "Yes, of course. But my curve makes Lover's Leap look like a sliding board!" That colorful expression has stuck in my mind for over 40 years now.

Roger Byrd, BS '72

Dr's Stanford and Ford

submitted by Gary Starnes (IMGT '87)

The other day, I was doing random searches on the Internet of names that were significant to me from my days at Georgia Tech (1982-1987). I typed in names of professors who I had fond memories of including a couple of Physics professors - Drs. Stanford and Ford.

I was not a Physics major. I started out in AE and later ended up in IMGT. Freshman physics was one of those hurdles that you were told to dread and that it would be a humbling experience. I guess to some that was the case. But not for all.

I had the good fortune to have Dr. Ford for then Physics 2121 Particle Dynamics, the first of the three freshman courses. I remember him coming into class the first day, with his slow amble, pulling up a stool and telling everyone "this course can be easy if you listen to me.¨ He then moved on to his lecture, always inserting relevant anecdotes to any college age individual who would rather be anywhere else than in an auditorium with 200 students on a warm Fall day. Each day, we would come into lecture and Dr. Ford would ask "any questions on the homework?". Usually no one would speak up. We got to the first exam and someone asked "what is the best way to prepare?" Dr. Ford responded "well, I suppose you should look at the homework; there's nothing quite like seeing an old friend during a stressful situation.¨ So many people wondered what that meant. The exam came and sure enough, the questions were taken straight from the homework, without the numbers even being changed. The grades on the exam were not good. As the course continued, Dr. Ford continued to offer to do homework problems in class. He would usually say "ok lets look at the homework, however if the allure of the warm sun on a Fall day has appeal, I encourage you also to go enjoy yourself." Two-thirds of the class would get up and leave. The rest of us sat there and essentially asked him to work every problem for us. He willingly did so. This pattern continued for the entire course. People still didn't get it. When the final came around he suggested studying the previous exams. Just as surely, the final was taken verbatim from the prior exams. Only 10% of the class got an A, and almost that many failed. Dr. Ford turned 2121 into an exercise in evaluating your choices in life as much as in teaching the basic elements of physics. He was a great man.

Dr. Stanford I had for 2123, Optics and Modern Physics. I remember his gruff appearance, often coming to class wearing work boots, jeans, and a keyring with what must have had a hundred keys hanging from his belt. I distinctly remember one session where he conducted a review of the Doppler Effect prior to an exam. He worked a few problems on the board. Then, he asked everyone to "stop thinking of physics as math formulas, start thinking of it in terms of what it tells you.¨ He then went on to point out that although we had worked several problems on the Doppler Effect, if he changed several of the variables and left out a couple of pieces of information that we would have to derive from another source, that would be a good exam question. Silence fell over the lecture hall. Dr. Stanford proceeded to say "come on, let it out, I know you are all thinking of it. Ooooooh, another shaft exam!¨. The room howled with laughter. Interestingly enough, the exam came out and one of the questions was "define the Doppler Effect¨. A few friends and I compared our graded exams and got similar results to the writer with the story from the 60s. I had written a lot of words, as I really didn't know how to translate it and I got a comment of "Are you trying to bluff..? I've been around longer than that." Another person had merely written the formula down and got "I believe you need to become a Math major instead.¨

As I look back now over 15 years ago, these remain some of the anecdotes I like to remember and laugh about.

Gary Starnes IMGT 1987

How Dr. Howey's careful spelling did me a favor

submitted by John Firor (Physics '49)

I had returned from WWII service and changed my major to Physics instead of EE which I had picked as a freshman. I did fairly well in physics and was asked to teach lab sections and some classes in physics 201, 202, and 203. Department chair Dr. Howey called me in one day when I was a senior and asked what graduate school I planned to attend. This was not something I had given any thought to, and Dr Howey said it was high time I paid attention to my future. He then wrote out a list of universities that had graduate physics programs. In his careful way, he listed these schools alphabetically: Chicago first and his own school, Yale, last.

I went back to the dormitory that evening and wrote to Chicago with the notion of writing to one school each evening. Life was too full, however, and I did not get around to any other letters.
I was admitted to Chicago (perhaps they had an early affirmative action plan which led them to admit an occasional southerner just to have diversity in accents) and that fall I took a train up to the big city and began school.

It was not long before I learned that the faculty there had more nobel lauriets than non-NLs. Many of them had joined the Chicago staff during the Manhattan project and had remained. Some of the other graduate students had dropped out of school and worked on the project also, putting them far ahead of beginners like me.

Over the year I have realized that the care to alphabetize that list had sent me to what was probably the finest physics department in the world at that time, an event that I have been thankful for ever since.

Anecdote about Dr. L. David Wyly

Submitted by Cletus M. Bost, Jr. (Mel Bost) Physics '69

Dr. Wyly was one of the two finest professors I had the pleasure of studying with as an undergraduate at Georgia Tech. (The other was Dr. Alson H. Bailey in the School of Mathematics.) At the beginning of each course Physics 301, 302 and 303 which were required courses in the Physics major's curriculum covering Mechanics, Electric/Magnetic Fields and Heat/Light/Sound, Dr. Wyly would spend the first two to three weeks of class teaching us the essential mathematics to understand the physics. Especially notable was his coverage of vector analysis and calculus including curl and divergence and the physical interpretations of these topics. I did not appreciate what he taught us until I was a graduate student at The University of Michigan studying quantum mechanics with Dr. James Duderstadt. Dr. Duderstadt was also a very thorough mathematician and, when it came to vector analysis, his treatment was so much the same as Dr. Wyly's that I began to question whether there were some connection. It was not until my daughter attended Yale University that I learned that Dr. Wyly and Dr. Duderstadt both studied at Yale, Wyly receiving a Ph.D. in Physics and Duderstadt receiving a BS in Engineering. But their treatment of vector analysis and calculus was so similar that I determined that it was probably derived from the handwritten notes of Dr. Josiah Willard Gibbs which were handed down from professor to student over the years at Yale. I have always felt that Dr. Wyly's treatment of vector analysis and his rigor of explanation gave me such a complete understanding of this topic, that I was confident when approaching any new area of physics such as plasmas and fusion which were explained mathematically by vector analysis.

Dr. Stanford's Solid State Physics class

submitted by Michael Murphy (Physics '71)

When I first attended Georgia Tech in 1965, there was an optional two-week orientation program I attended prior to the start of classes That two-week period had more impact on me that any other course I attended.

The setting was a campground in rural Georgia. The purpose of the orientation program was to prepare you for the Georgia Tech environment before your first class. I learned about RAT Hats, George P. Burdell, and the Georgia Tech Fight Songs. I will always remember the first group meeting where the speaker told us to look at the person on your right and the person on the left and realize that they will probably not complete their college courses to gain a degree at Georgia Tech. Miller Templeton and Dr. Stanford were chaperones in charge of the campground building to which I was assigned.

I never realized the impact of having these two guys as my orientation instructors. I still remember Dr. Stanford playing the guitar with protest songs from that era. Dr. Stanford had a beard and long hair and was great to know. He was a 60's type of person, but also a teacher of Solid State Physics at Georgia Tech. The Fernbank Science Center was created with the help of Dr. Stanford. He was the smartest person that I have ever met and has always been a little ahead of his time.

When I was a student in the Physics Graduate School, I had a graduate class in Solid State Physics that was taught by Dr. Stanford. Your grade was determined by averaging the mid-term exam, a paper, and the final exam. I missed the mid-term due to having double pneumonia. I met with Dr. Stanford to reschedule the mid-term exam and he said that he would skip the midterm and base my grade 50% on the final and 50% on my paper. My paper was on the reverse theory of light. In my paper, I took Maxwell's equations, Newton's Laws, and Quantum Mechanic, Einstein's Relational Quantum Mechanics and showed that there was no way to determine the flow of light. The equations supported either direction of the photon flow. I received my paper just before the final exam with no grade but YOU GOT TO BE KIDDING ME” written on the cover of my paper. No grade was on the paper.

The final exam was the last one of the final exam week, so Dr. Stanford told us that he was going home and to slide the exams under his office door when we finished and he would pick them up Monday Morning. After about 12 hours, no one had left the exam room. I did my best to answer all questions on the exam because I figured that I had an F on my paper. I was the first to leave so I assumed I would get an F as my final course grade too. Other people in the class worked on the exam from Friday to the next Monday. You cannot believe my relief when I saw the A next to my student ID. I learned a valuable lesson from the experience, never give up when the chips are down. Wait a few minutes and see what life brings to you.

Thoughts on Professors Tanner, Valk & Ford

submitted by James Hamill (Physics '77)

Out of a constellation of great physics teachers at Tech, I have particularly fond memories of Professors Tanner, Valk, and Ford. Dr. Tanner, my class's first physics professor, respected his students, yet if we answered a question without using units that make sense, we were instantly told about the mistake. Dr. Valk was the guru of quantum mechanics, and a cultured man, a voracious reader.

It was sad to hear about the death, a few years ago, of Dr. Joe Ford, a physics icon in my time at Tech. In thermodynamics classes in 1975 or so, many examples were based on the engine of his Volkswagen. Key points in the lecture notes were highlighted by a pointing finger at the end of a hairy arm with a Mickey Mouse wristwatch. This approach to physics impressed the students. Years later, I heard Dr. Ford give a seminar at Florida State on the subject of chaos. Surely his colleagues miss the great man still.

Finkelstein and Ford

submitted by David Devine (Physics '84)

The title of the course was "Physics of Space and Time". Who could resist? I signed up, and as soon as David Finkelstein entered the room I knew that I was in the right place. Back then (1981) he looked like Moses in blue jeans. I changed my major to Physics the next day, and over the next few years spent many hours pestering him with questions about physics, philosophy and the meaning of it all. He patiently endured, providing the needed word or phrase that would send me out the door to puzzle all the more.

I also have fond memories of Joe Ford. I recall one evening when he wandered into my office asking to borrow a paper clip. After chatting for a bit he suddenly asked if I would be interested in joining him at one of the local watering holes. I readily agreed, figuring that he did not remember how poorly I had done in his classes (he did). Much to my surprise he spoke to me as a father would speak to his son, passing on advice about physics and life in equal portions over a pitcher of beer. No professor had ever spoken to me in that fashion, and it meant the world to me.

David Devine 1978-1984