One of the greatest adventures of my life began in one of those huge, impersonal, freshman lecture classes: "Physics Wave Mechanics." Late in the quarter, the professor asked, "Does anyone have a question?" His response, to my question, was shocking and set off a series of events which are indelibly recorded in my memory. "That is the most stupid question I've ever heard. If you had done any of the required homework, you would realize how stupid your question is! In fact, if you had been listening at all to today's lecture, you would realized just how stupid you are!"
Naive, yes; stupid, no! I headed directly to the Administration Building to see the University's vice president of research: Dr. George W. Farwell, a nationally respected physics research scientist. He would know who was doing research in my field of interest and who could discuss my question in a reasonable manner. As we walked across campus, Professor Farwell's two-sentence response was even more shocking, "David, there is no one on campus qualified to answer that question. Find a good institution and do the research!"
A few months later, I found myself proposing an experiment to the chairman of the Physics Department, Cal-Berkeley. Dr. Sumner Davis exchanged facial gestures with his assistant and stated, "That is such a subtle question. We will have to research the answer before even considering (assigning department resources to you)." Dr. Davis gave me his personal lab for the summer; he agreed to be the project's theoretical adviser, and solicited Dr. Amer to assist with the equipment and experiment. Of course the question came up, "Why Berkeley and not the UW?" Professor Farwell's statement was the accepted answer, "Find a good institution and do the research."
My research involved the properties of laser light, and my lab was surrounded by people doing cutting edge laser research. I toured research labs at the Berkeley Livermore Labs and saw the insides of the cyclotron itself. Berkeley's chancellor of student affairs came over for a dorm meal and to talk about my Berkeley experience. I was allowed to join a round-table discussion with my physics super hero, Dr. Crawford, and his protégés. "Dave you weren't around when it was made, but today's assignment is to present a simple wave experiment which can be done anywhere. What can you show us?" The trick I showed was at least 100 times more "ridiculous" than my original UW question. A funny thing was happening. No one was laughing at my latest proposal. Each scientist recreated the trick and reported what they saw. Those who disagreed with my hypothesis had to present their own explanations of the phenomena. I seldom had to defend my position, because someone else would interrupt to shoot down impractical explanations. The group continued discussing and playing with my trick while we walked to Dr. Crawford's postgraduate lecture: "Making Wave Physics Interesting for Students."
Early one morning as the first faint hues of sunrise silhouetted the hills behind the campus, I assembled a mathematical formula modeling light's behavior. The formula verified that my original UW question was correct. Additionally, given any specific laser, the formula would predict when the phenomena could be observed. During the time, which it would take the rumble of distant thunder to follow lightning's blinding flash, there was an all consuming feeling of success and genius. Then more calculations, a couple of hours' sleep, back to class, back to the lab and more studying ... a pattern which was being repeated throughout the surrounding labs.
Before leaving Berkeley, the physics department made it clear that until graduating from the University of Washington, I had a standing invitation to return each summer, "to carry your research to progressively higher levels." Back home, I told only two friends--a grad student and a professor--about the Berkeley experience. That was more than enough; everyone found out. A frequently asked question was, "How did you end up at Berkeley?" The answer was simple: George Farwell.
Professor Farwell's two-sentence response to my question remains shocking to me. But at the time, his statements seemed disorientingly bizarre. Here was a man with immense pride in his field of science and in the University of Washington. And he was saying, David don't waste your time (and self-esteem) asking questions of people who are not qualified to answer. Take action, make decisions and take responsibility for your own discoveries. Through their words and actions, Dr. Farwell and the Berkeley professors empowered me to take full responsibility for finding an answer to my own question. No one ever told me the answer. They never hinted in what direction I should expend effort. There were lots of good institutions, besides Berkeley and the UW, where I could have done the research. (Today, the whole thing could be handled with two laser pointer-pens and the Internet.) Berkeley was the reward ... one of the greatest adventures of my life, which resulted from George Farwell inspiring me to think creatively and to take responsibility for my own discoveries.
David W. Erickson, '88
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