Friday, October 22, 2010

Zen Education

Sheldon Glashow (recent pix)

In 1979 Sheldon Glashow shared the Nobel Prize in physics for his part in the unification of the weak and electromagnetic forces, but in 1962, he was just another faculty member at Stanford with a taste for big cigars and small red sports cars.

In the crowded quarters of the Inner Quad, because I was a teaching assistant in a second-floor lab, I was given an office on that floor while less-fortunate grad students were relegated to "the Zoo" on the third floor--a large open area full of desks directly under the roof which was also home to pigeons, squirrels and (some claimed) owls. My second-floor office happened to be located right across the hall from Shelly Glashow's lair.

Lasers had just been invented then and were a topic of hot discussion. I had heard that red lasers were easy to make but that green lasers were harder, and blue lasers almost impossible. (Few are aware that the Blue-Ray laser in your DVD player represents a remarkable technological breakthrough.) I wondered what physics principle mades high-frequency lasers so difficult to build so I decided to ask Shelly Glashow.

I knocked on his door, posed my question and he asked: "Who are you?"

I told Shelly I had an office across the hall, was a second-year graduate student and he replied: "Get out of here. You can answer that question by yourself."

Shelly was right. In a few hours I was able to derive the answer from basic physics principles.

Not only did I discover the answer but I never forgot it. If Glashow had explained it to me I would almost certainly have forgotten it along with thousands of other physics facts that entered my mind in those days and quickly exited the other side.

Thanks, Shelly, for encouraging me to think for myself, and for embodying (no doubt unknowingly) the subtle art of teaching without teaching.

2 comments:

fcy said...

Thank you for showing us the value of thinking for ourselves.

(And it's even cooler that you can do so while dropping names!)

Best wishes,
FC

fcy said...
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