Jun 22, 2005

Once I had a physics teacher

They told me not to take his class. It’s hard, they said, take the other class. But I didn’t want to take the easy class that had every one in it, (that had all of them bored). If I was going to take any science class at all I wanted it to be interesting, with a professor getting excited in his chalk equations and with me walking out of class feeling the need to pigeonhole passing people, making them put down their back packs so I could tell them something that they had to hear and that I hadn’t known an hour ago.

No, no I said, I want to take Crawford’s class. Astronomy, though it was more like Astrophysics. It was the hardest class I’ve ever taken.

Prof. Ron Crawford had worked in NASA, doing the sort of things astrophysicists do at NASA, and had taken up teaching part time, decided he liked it, and stayed. He was, in style, droll. He assumed that other teachers did something mysterious that he without a Ph.D. had never figured out how to do. He wasn’t self-deprecating about it, just sort of curious, occasionally asking us questions about his colleagues.

The first day of class, he taught about light and explained how it’s a wave and how it’s also a particle and how you could explain light either way, or better, both ways. Then the next day he taught about wave lengths, radio waves, colors, and why the sky is blue. He made us memorize the speed of light. He taught us the equations of the processes of the births and deaths of stars, about giant stars and collapsed ones and black holes and Brownian motion. On one test we had to draw and explain all the possible orbits on one and two-star solar system. On the last day of class, after the final when there was this useless class that couldn’t count towards anything and most classes either canceled or turning to a get-to-know-you-now-that-it’s-over party, Crawford had class and talked about the possibility that space had a topography. Everyone was there.

He drew pictures and long numbers and Greek letters, starting on the left side of the wall to brick wall black board and writing and drawing in three arm-width wide columns a class. One day, half way through drawing some really long number that was equal to a Greek letter divided by some other Greek letter, he turned to us and said, Do you guys know Greek? Huh, you should really learn.

It was the hardest class I’ve ever taken. The next semester I wrote Prof. Crawford a note and told him that I didn’t have the talent to take physics much farther than reading history, but his class was fantastic. It was the only thank you note I’d ever written. Well, he said, it’s the only one I’ve ever gotten.

Crawford died last year. May he rest in peace.