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Caltech Remembers David Goodstein

David Goodstein, the Frank J. Gilloon Distinguished Teaching and Service Professor, Emeritus, and professor of physics and applied physics, emeritus, passed away on April 10. He served as a professor at Caltech for more than four decades, and as the Institute's vice provost from 1987 to 2007. His research was in the field of condensed matter physics (a field then known as low-temperature physics) and spanned phases and phase transitions in two-dimensional thin films, propagation of mechanical vibrations in highly perfect crystals, and superfluidity in liquid helium. In total, his research led to nearly 200 scientific publications.

In the 1980s, Goodstein was the director and host of The Mechanical Universe, an educational television series on physics designed for high school students that has been translated into many languages. The series was broadcast on hundreds of public broadcasting stations and garnered more than a dozen prestigious awards, including the 1987 Japan Prize for television.

He also authored several books, including Feynman's Lost Lecture, written with his wife and Caltech university archivist, emeritus, Judith (Judy) Goodstein; Out of Gas: The End of the Age of Oil; On Fact and Fraud: Cautionary Tales from the Front Lines of Science; and Climate Change and the Energy Problem. His book States of Matter was hailed by Physics Today as the book that launched a new discipline, condensed matter physics.

"David was many things in his time at Caltech," says Rochus (Robbie) Vogt, the R. Stanton Avery Distinguished Service Professor and Professor of Physics, Emeritus. "He did much more than physics. He engaged in a broad range of scholarly activities, including recreating the first-year Physics 1 course, and then he turned that into The Mechanical Universe to make it accessible to more students."

In more recent times, Goodstein turned his attention to issues related to science and society. In articles, speeches, and colloquia, he addressed conduct and misconduct in science, the end of exponential growth of the scientific enterprise, and issues related to fossil fuels and Earth's climate. He also pioneered a Caltech course on science ethics in the late 1980s.

Goodstein was born in Brooklyn in 1939 and grew up in the Flatbush neighborhood. He attended Brooklyn Technical High School, where he first felt the call of science. "Like most scientists, I knew at a very early age that I had a facility for numbers that most children didn't have, and I knew in some vague way that I was going to be a scientist or engineer," Goodstein said in his Caltech oral history interview. He received his bachelor's degree from Brooklyn College in 1960 (where he met his wife Judy), and his PhD from the University of Washington in 1965.

"My whole life has been a series of accidents in which I did the right thing for the wrong reason," he said. "I became a physicist not because I wanted to study physics but because I didn't want to go to City College by the subway—you know, that sort of thing."

Goodstein was hired to start a low-temperature physics lab at Caltech in 1966 and, shortly thereafter, left for a yearlong fellowship in Rome. There, he and his wife learned to speak Italian, attending lessons twice a week, and Goodstein taught every seminar there in Italian. Though he returned to Caltech in 1968 as an assistant professor, the fellowship led to lifelong friendships and collaborations in Italy.

Around this time, Goodstein became good friends with the renowned Caltech professor Richard Feynman. "We used to go to lunch at the Greasy. It was not called Chandler then; it was called the Greasy … We talked and talked about many things—science, teaching, society, whatever." In his oral history, Goodstein recalled attending a talk with Feynman in Chicago, where they happened to meet James D. Watson, who had been working on The Double Helix, a book about Watson's role in discovering the structure of DNA. Watson had asked Feynman to read the book and provide a review. Later during that trip, Goodstein attended a party in Feynman's honor and noticed Feynman had disappeared early.

"About one o'clock in the morning, I went upstairs to our suite, and he's sitting there waiting for me, and he says, 'You've got to read this book.' And I said, 'Oh, that's great. I look forward to it.' He said, 'No. I mean now!' [Laughter] And so, from one o'clock in the morning until five o'clock in the morning, with Feynman sitting there waiting for me to finish, I read through the entire Double Helix in manuscript form. And Feynman, who had been sitting there doodling—as he always did, on a pad of paper … Imagine the pressure of Feynman sitting up all night waiting for you to finish reading this book, so he can talk about it."

The idea for The Mechanical Universe first came about in 1979. At that time, the first-year undergraduate physics course was being taught from The Feynman Lectures on Physics book series, which recounted Feynman's lectures from 1962–64. The books remain highly regarded among scientists but "had gotten too hard" to teach, according to Goodstein. "To learn for the first time from those books is just impossible. You, basically, need to know physics in order to appreciate them," he said. As a result, Vogt, who was then the chair of the Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy division, asked Goodstein to create a new physics course.

Goodstein took up the challenge, and by the second year of teaching the course, he got the idea to turn his lectures into a television show. "It occurred to me that television was bound to play some role in the future of education. I didn't know what. This was all the way back in 1980, when television was different from what it is today. But it was bound to have some role in the future of education, and Caltech—as usual—should be a leader and not a follower in whatever role they play."

Ultimately, Goodstein secured $6 million in funding for the show from the Annenberg/Corporation for Public Broadcasting project. Over a period of about five years, between 1982–87, Goodstein and his scientific and Hollywood collaborators produced 52 episodes that went beyond simply filming lectures. The late Tom Apostol, a longtime mathematics professor at Caltech, was brought on to ensure the rigor of the math derivations to be displayed during the episodes.

During the summers, the Feynman Lecture Hall at Caltech was turned into a set. Seats from the lecture hall were removed and replaced by tracks with a dolly and lighting structures.

"Acting students from Pasadena City College were used in the summer," says Steven Frautschi, professor of theoretical physics, emeritus, who was part of the science team behind the series. "They would repeat the scenes over and over, and the students were good at laughing again and again when Goodstein would repeat his jokes. There had never been a coherent physics series like his before, certainly not with math equations. The Annenberg organization was interested because it was groundbreaking."

To create animations for the series, the team hired expert animator Jim Blinn, a JPL computer graphics specialist who developed animations for JPL's planetary missions (JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA). "Somebody once said that of the six best computer animators in the world, three of them are Jim Blinn," Goodstein said in his oral history.

"I was extremely fortunate to work for David on The Mechanical Universe telecourse," Blinn says. "He masterfully balanced the team of physicists and mathematicians (who kept wanting to put in more and more equations) and TV production people (who kept wanting to put in more and more historical re-enactments) to make a series that we were all proud of. Doing these animations was a life dream come true for me, and I will always treasure the time I spent with David. His humor and teaching expertise made every day enjoyable."

In his oral history, Goodstein recalled mentoring 15 "outstanding" graduate students, many of whom are now professors. "I'd like to think that I've had some influence on a very large number of Caltech students over the years—and of course, through the television series, on millions of others," he said.

"I remember when David used to lecture, he would bring in a theatrical element," Frautschi says. "In collaboration with his wife Judy, he would obtain an original copy of Newton's Principia. He would put on gloves and carefully turn the fragile pages. He was a bit of a ham—in a good way."

Paul Jennings, professor of civil engineering and applied mechanics, Emeritus, and a former provost with whom Goodstein served, says Goodstein was an "exemplary" vice provost. "He brought a strong scientific record, excellent language skills and good judgement to the job. He wrote well and he could write very fast. He took the lead in quickly drafting Caltech's procedures for dealing with possible research misconduct and later was a key member of the small team that had to investigate an actual case. One of the other things he did was to take the guiding role in Caltech's early involvement in the California Council for Science and Technology. He was a great colleague and a fine man."

Harry Yohalem, who served as Caltech's general counsel when Goodstein was vice provost, says "David was a problem solver who applied his formidable skills to find solutions to a wide variety of issues during his tenure as vice provost. He was the 'go-to' guy on any number of issues that needed senior-level attention and was invaluable to the Caltech administration."

Goodstein also performed in Caltech plays, recalls Mark Adler (PhD '90), a former JPL Fellow who worked on projects such as the Mars Exploration Rover mission. Adler performed in the musical Camelot with Goodstein (Adler played King Arthur to Goodstein's Merlin). "I was amazed that here was this distinguished Caltech professor, who probably had more important things to do, and yet, he was incredibly eager, excited, and engaged to be in a school theater production. David was a blast to work with."

In 1999, the American Association of Physics Teachers awarded Goodstein with the Oersted Medal. A year later, he was honored with the John P. McGovern Medal by Sigma Xi, a scientific research honor society. He served on and chaired several scientific and academic panels, including the National Science Foundation's Directorate for Mathematical and Physical Sciences Advisory Committee.

He is survived by his wife Judy and two children. Their daughter, Marcia Goodstein, and her husband, Bill Gross, have five children: David Gross (married to Aurora Pribram-Jones with a daughter, Avra Eko), Madeline Williamson, Sam Williamson, Andrew Gross (engaged to Anna Grabovac), and Ben Rachel Gross. Their son, Mark Goodstein, and his wife, Brence Culp, have two children: Trudy Goodstein and Sigmund Goodstein.

Written by Whitney Clavin

Whitney Clavin
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