In Memorium: Alfred Romer (1906 - 1998)

Physics in Perspective

Phys. perspect. 1 (1999) 215-218
1422-6944/99/020215-04 $ 1.50 + 0.20/0

©Birkhauser Verlag, Basel, 1999.
Article reproduced with permission.

Alfred Romer, Emeritus Professor of Physics at St. Lawrence University, died after a short illness on October 29, 1998, at the age of 92. His entire professional career was dedicated to teaching of undergraduate students, and the majority of his research and publications was inspired by topics in the undergraduate physics curriculum. In the later part of his career his concern for physics teaching took him into the study of the history of physics, and resulted in serious historical scholarship.

Born in Pleasantville, New York, on August 9, 1906, he was a graduate of Williams College and received his doctorate cum laude from the California Institute of Technology in 1935. Al's doctoral research was in spectroscopy, but after a year as a visiting fellow at Harvard University studying with George Sarton (1940-41), he found his intellectual interests more and more centered on the history of his discipline. He became a strong proponent of the practice of teaching a science through its history. Al taught physics at both Whittier College (1933-43) and Vassar College (1943-46) before joining the St. Lawrence physics faculty in 1946. He held a visiting fellowship at Princeton University in 1955-56 and was a visiting professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1975-76. Although nominally retired in 1973, he continued to teach on a part-time basis until 1994. The final version of his last scholarly paper was accepted for publication by Physics in Perspective only a month before his death.

Al's commitment to physics teaching extended to a serious dedication to the American Association of Physics Teachers. He was secretary of the AAPT (1966-70), Associate Editor of the American Journal of Physics (1961-66), and acting editor in 1962. A member of the History of Science Society and the Society for the History of Technology, in 1990 he was elected a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

Al's scholarship was meticulous; he once said, in a lecture on science education, "I have only one absolute. Teach genuine science. Don't make things up. Try to weed out the folklore which keeps creeping into textbooks." In many ways his career was devoted to ensuring that the rest of us are able to "teach genuine science." His historical and pedagogical papers appear in the American Journal of Physics; he also published in Isis and authored a biography of Henri Becquerel for the Dictionary of Scientific Biography. In the Classics of Science series published by Dover under the general editorship of Gerald Holton, Al wrote introductory essays and editorial commentary for two volumes of collected original papers: The Discovery of Radioactivity and Transmutation (1964) and Radiochemistry and the Discovery of Isotopes (1970). His book, The Restless Atom (1960), which was written as a textbook for a physics course for non-science majors, was widely acclaimed and was translated into thirteen languages, including a pirated Russian edition.

Al Romer's deep concern with physics pedagogy led him to become involved in the reform of physics teaching in American high schools. In the 1960s he was closely connected with the development and dissemination of the Physical Science Study Committee (PSSC) Physics. He was a visiting staff member for Education Services, Inc. (1962-63) and directed several summer institutes for high school physics teachers at Princeton University and St. Lawrence University. Although the quintessential scholar, Al also insisted that physics always be taught in the context of the real world. For him, good laboratory instruction was essential to good science teaching. He labored long and hard to develop meaningful, compelling laboratory exercises for introductory physics courses, and insisted that those exercises reflect the actual practice of physics, rather than overly-simplified demonstrations of the gee-whiz variety.

Al's historical scholarship was of a traditional nature. He believed in genius, and was fascinated by the intellectual accomplishments of his heroes. In "How to Choose a Theory" (American Journal of Physics, 1973) he wrote: "these men fascinate me. I wonder at their arrogance, the unmitigated gall which led them to undertake the tasks they did. Who told Ptolemy that he could bring all astronomy into the compass of a single book which would not be superseded for fifteen hundred years?" Al also believed that we can only understand scientists by understanding all the details of their work. When he studied Ernest Rutherford and the early history of radioactivity and the atom, he made certain that he was familiar with all of the experimental results that shaped Rutherford's thinking. He so internalized Rutherford's thought processes that it often seemed in conversations with Al as if the great New Zealander were here among us in Canton, New York.

Al's last paper, published in this issue of Physics in Perspective grew out of a project he started a number of years ago as an attempt to improve the teaching of the Copernican revolution to liberal arts students. He was perturbed by some of the misconceptions physicists seem to hold about the founding stories of their own discipline, and how this translates into what we teach non-science students. Particularly problematic for him was Thomas Kuhn's book, The Copernican Revolution, which he felt did not present any compelling reason why astronomers would choose the Copernican model over the Ptolemaic. In his search for an answer to this question, he arrived at the work published here. In it we find a close reading of the Greek astronomer Ptolemy as well as of Copernicus and his contemporaries. It reveals a clear and thorough understanding of the motions of the sun, moon, and planets, and a willingness to reproduce the mathematical demonstrations of the 16th century. This is a style of scholarship rarely practiced these days. Within Al's elegant, demanding, carefully crafted prose is a claim that may have serious implications for Copernicus scholarship: that Copernicus's contemporaries in astronomy, far from being surprised at his suggestion that the earth revolves about the sun, eagerly awaited the publication of De Revolutionibus. Al believed that the astronomers of the 16th century were less bothered by the earth moving than they were intrigued by the elegant simplicity of the Copernican model.

After his retirement in 1973, Al took up the study of the history of technology, and for more than 20 years thereafter he taught an annual course in the subject. Finding no textbook that adequately addressed the technical details of the topics he wanted to cover, he wrote his own (Fire and Structures), which he continued to revise on an annual basis for the lifetime of the course. The scope of the book reveals the range of Al's study of the history of technology - from the archeology of the ancient Near East to the chemistry of steel making. Al was know among students for clever wooden and cardboard models he created for their study of various structural designs. One April first he came into his office to find that his students had demonstrated their mastery of the material by constructing a large pyramid from rolls of toilet paper.

In retirement Al also first acquired and mastered the use of a personal computer. He could be found in his office, day after day, regular as a clock, working on drafts of his various projects. He illustrated his papers on Copernicus with geometrically correct schematics of the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems drawn with Mathematica. His final professional task was to persuade his computer to reproduce these diagrams within the text of his last paper so that one of us could use it in preprint form for her class last fall.

Al Romer was one of the best-read people one could have the fortune to meet, and he had a remarkable memory. He had hundreds of poems stored in his mind, from doggerel to great literature, and could always be depended upon to supply a missing quotation or reference for a less-gifted colleague. These literary references often crept into his lectures about science, in the same way that science often appeared in his sermons for the local Unitarian-Universalist Church. He cited Kipling's "All-the Beaver-there-Was" to illustrate the importance of apprenticeship in science education, and Descartes and Laplace in a contemplation of why we humans are here on the earth.

It is a rare person who gives as much to the physics community after retirement as before. Al Romer's encyclopedic knowledge and his enduring and kindly presence taught us that the inquisitive mind is forever young. Would that we all leave so valuable a legacy.

Karen E. Johnson and Donald C. Peckham, Physics Department, St. Lawrence University