Professor Emeritus John G. King (SB 1950, PhD), experimental physicist and pioneer in atomic clocks, fundamental physics experiments and physics education, was honored by more than 60 colleagues and former students on April 1.
The leader of the Molecular Beams Lab for almost 50 years, Professor King's reach has extended not only to his many undergraduate and graduate students, but to many others who have experienced Project Lab, Corridor Lab and take-home physics experiment kits.
"Fundamentally, I had a hell of a good time and lots of fun," he said in summarizing his MIT career. Several former students reminisced about their enjoyment and satisfaction in learning from Professor King, a longtime advocate of training students in the fine art of experimental physics.
Fred Dylla (SB 1971, PhD) recalled "getting your hands dirty and being surrounded by brilliant students who were around all the time" in the Molecular Beams Labs run by Professor King, whose teaching philosophy was that "the best way to understand your apparatus is to build it." His undergraduate thesis with Professor King, a simple experiment (total cost: about $20) to find the difference in charge between the electron and proton, is still considered a highly sensitive measurement.
Others recalled the innovative Project Lab, introduced by Professor King in 1966, where students were encouraged to develop their own open-ended research projects. They were guided by his philosophy that "you can find something interesting to study about any mundane effect," ranging from how much energy is stored in a superball to what happens on the surface of the contacts of a switch when it's closed.
Professor King, who retired in 1996, is still an active advocate for the importance of experimental science in education. With other MIT physics luminaries, he has developed a series of low-cost "take home" physics experiment kits for mechanics, optics, electricity and magnetism classes. These will soon be incorporated with a textbook and available to a wider audience.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 12, 2000.