The Convocation Address

Daniel Kleppner ’53 welcomes President Falk and reflects on his own undergraduate experience at Williams. Kleppner is Lester Wolfe Professor Emeritus of Physics at MIT and co-director of the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms, He was awarded the National Medal of Science in 2006.

Epiphanies at Williams

Daniel Kleppner ’53
The Induction of Adam F. Falk as the 17th President of Williams College
Convocation, September 25, 2010

Daniel KleppnerIt is not traditional — in fact it is highly unusual — for a liberal arts institution to select a scientist to be its president, but today Williams College is inducting Adam Falk, a theoretical physicist. I feel deeply honored to participate in the ceremony and to be given an opportunity to address the Williams community on such a happy occasion, but I suspect that my profession may have something to do with the invitation. Possibly the hope is that because I am not only a Williams alumnus but also a physicist, I can offer some reassurance to the community that even though Williams will be in the hands of a physicist, there is no serious cause for alarm.

So, let me start by attempting to assuage concerns you may have about inaugurating a theoretical physicist as president. I can do this authoritatively because, by one of those strange coincidences, twenty-one years ago I met Adam Falk just as he was about to start graduate school. My wife Beatrice and I were running the U.S. end of a Japan-U.S. program to bring together a group of outstanding U.S. science and math undergraduates and graduates with their Japanese counterparts, plus about a half dozen scientific luminaries. The goal was visionary: The students were likely to be among the leaders of the future and somehow the experience would benefit them. A colleague, Tom Clegg, at the University of North Carolina told us of an extraordinary student by the name of Adam Falk, and Adam joined the program.

In anticipation of today?s event, Beatrice managed to excavate Adam?s application from among the papers in our attic. The applications had been evaluated independently by a group of the alumni and were ranked not only for intellectual prowess and creative promise, but also for personal savvy and social skill. Adam?s was the only application to get a top rating — in fact a star rating — from every one of the readers. His essay described the value of cross-pollination between fields of science and between cultures, and the value to young scientists of contact with luminaries, particularly in new fields. If Adam had been gunning for the presidency of Williams, his essay would probably have done the trick.

So, I can credibly report that Adam Falk is not a late bloomer but a born star. Anyone who remains uneasy at the thought of a theoretical physicist at the helm of Williams College should be reassured by his great success at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences at Johns Hopkins. And if you still have misgivings, a short conversation with Adam Falk on any subject of your choice should convince you that Williams has lucked out in obtaining him for its new president. (I should mention that I did not clear this proposal with Adam — it is just one more of the risks that comes with his new job.) I congratulate Adam on his many achievements and I congratulate Williams for his appointment. The future of Williams College with Adam Falk as president looks bright.

It was suggested to me that I say something about my Williams experience and my career in science. At the panel this morning I talked about some of my work as a physicist and so I propose to talk here about experiences at Williams that launched me into my career.

I entered Williams with a predilection for physics. This was partly due to the influence of an older brother who liked mechanical things, though he later deserted reality for mathematics. However, the major influence was a charismatic high school teacher, Arthur B. Hussey. Furthermore, physics was glamorous. Einstein had long been a cult figure and physicists were national heroes because of their role in the Second World War.

Williams did a wonderful job launching me into my career but my experience here was not totally smooth. The first jolt was an epiphanic experience that occurred during the freshman week in September 1950. (Full disclosure: I did not learn the words epiphany and epiphanic until the following year. In case they are not part of your vocabulary, an epiphany is a sudden vision or brilliant insight, and epiphanic is the adjective form.) It occurred when Fred Stocking gave a warm up talk about what to expect in freshman English. He picked apart Shakespeare?s sonnet “That time of year thou mayest in me behold …” I had had a weak background in English and knew little about the possibilities of language or the richness of meanings in literature. Fred Stocking?s lecture opened a new world. The situation was euphoric — or so it seems in memory — and for a couple of years I gorged myself with English. I recall classes with Jack Ludwig, Richard Poirier, Don Gifford, and Clay Hunt, as well as Fred Stocking. Fred and Clay had occasional evenings at home in which they invited a few freshmen to decipher and discuss obscure poems. To attract this personal interest by my professors was not only deeply flattering, it gave me confidence and in some way altered my expectations for myself. I must confess, however, that the only specific detail that I recall from those evenings was that Clay Hunt passionately disliked the music of Johannes Brahms. Clay was a forceful character and I lacked the courage to argue the point.

At Williams I started to memorize poems that I now I carry as a personal treasure. Shakespeare?s sonnet was at the top of the list. In addition to my heady engagement with English, I recall being jolted by a history course by Bob Waite, whose passionate condemnation of glib thought still rings. Also, survey courses in art by Lane Faison and music by Irwin Shainman opened new avenues of pleasure. Without laboring the issue, I wish to go on record as being an enthusiast for the humanities and a liberal arts education for a career in science and, for that matter, a career in anything.

As an undergraduate I thought little about careers except that I knew that I liked physics. My expectations for doing well in my first physics course were modest and when I received a good grade, I was inordinately pleased. However, I received an even more tangible boost from the physics faculty. I came to Williams with an idea for an electromechanical device, something of a forerunner to cybernetics.

Ralph Winch, the Department Chairman, found some lab space for me and Howard Stabler took the time to teach me some of the electronic facts of life. The project initiated me into the practice of experimental research — the pleasure of working throughout the night in solitude, the frustrations of experimental breakdowns, the pleasure of learning new skills and the unique joy when something finally works. One detail stands out, though it is probably exaggerated in memory: the pleasure of a cup of coffee and a donut in the early hours of the morning at a little shop on Spring Street.

My tutorship with Howard Stabler reinforced my view of the academic life as being both elevated and austere. He had a necktie with a spot at its center worn through from hours of leaning against a podium as he talked. His unworldlyness in ignoring the hole in his tie was, to me, exemplary.

I would like to describe two other epiphanic experiences involving Williams College, one of my own and one, I think, of Williams?. Outside of class, I was not really happy. Primarily this was because I was socially immature, which is the politically correct way of saying that I had few friends, lacked grace, and was not good at competing for the attention of women. However, it dawned on me that Williams itself was profoundly socially immature. The Williams fraternity system was an obvious anachronism. Williams? tradition of leaving the social life to the fraternities, essentially in private hands, seemed to me to be an abrogation of its responsibility to assure a healthy environment for its students.

I knew that many of the faculty shared my view about fraternities but I was surprised that the Administration seemed to be so accepting. I screwed up my courage and went to speak with the President, James Phinney Baxter, III, to find out how Williams planned to deal with its social problem. To President Baxter?s credit, he showed no hesitation in meeting with an unknown sophomore. The meeting did not go well, however, because It quickly emerged that he believed the fraternities were the backbone of Williams and that the fraternity system was splendid. This was pretty discouraging. It suddenly dawned on me that possibly there was an alternative to spending four years at Williams. I think of this as an epiphany because it caused an extreme and unexpected change of heart for me, and, of course, a change in plans.

Some years after I left, Williams, too, underwent an epiphany, and profoundly changed its vision of itself. With the advent of John Sawyer as president, residential houses replaced fraternities and Williams became coeducational. From all I have heard, and all I have seen, these transformations have vastly improved the college. If I were student today I might well be scheming to prolong my stay at Williams, rather than to shorten it. But in 1952 I made plans for getting away.

I attempted to arrange a junior year abroad but the Korean War was underway and the Draft Board took a dim view of leaving the country. However, the physics faculty was sympathetic with my desire to move on. So, with the assistance of supportive faculty members and a sympathetic Dean, I devised a schedule that let me graduate at the end of my junior year. Following the advice of David Park, who joined the physics department that year, I applied to graduate school at Harvard and also applied for a Fulbright Fellowship to England.

The plan worked well. Harvard accepted me and then deferred admission when I won a Fulbright to Cambridge University for two years. Life at Cambridge turned out to be a delight because of the charms of the ancient university and possibly because the Fulbright Commission provided a stipend based on the cost of living in the U.S., which made me wealthy but, alas, only for two years. My social skills improved and on the ship returning to England following my first year abroad, I met my future wife. Although our encounter was totally embarrassing — I made a silly quip and fell over the coffee table — but my social skills had reached a level that permitted me to eventually recover from the debacle. We recently celebrated our 52nd anniversary.

My tutor at Cambridge, Kenneth Smith, was a young physicist working in the new field of atomic beams. From him I first heard about the possibility of measuring the effect of gravity on time with an
atomic clock. The idea intrigued me and turned out to play an important role in my graduate career. When I returned to the U.S. and started graduate work at Harvard I became a student at Harvard in
Norman Ramsey?s group and started out on the research mentioned in the citation.

Since 1966 I have been on the faculty at MIT, which is an institution as different in form and spirit from Williams College as one could imagine. However, the ideas, enthusiasms and approach to scholarship and teaching that have carried me through my career can one way or another all be traced to Williams.

As any teacher can attest, perhaps the greatest joy of teaching is to be thanked by your students in later years. I kept in contact with some of my Williams teachers, although hardly any of them are around today for me to thank. Of the physics faculty, only David Park is with us. Beatrice and I have been friends with David and his late wife Clara over the years, and such a friendship brings a great richness to life. I also maintained occasional contact with Fred Stocking, who died last year. I regret that I never got around to asking him why he chose Shakespeare?s sonnet about age and death to entice freshmen into English, given that freshmen feel immortal.

The personal attention from faculty that was so important to me at Williams was due not only to the generosity of my teachers individually, but to Williams College itself and the Williams ethos, which esteems such contact and made my education possible. One does not often have an opportunity to say thank you to an institution but this is such an opportunity and I intend to take it. Thank you, Williams College.