Gabi Weinreich –Talk to the Resonance Group

From the University of Michigan Regents’ Proceedings 380, 1995

Gabriel Weinreich, professor of physics, retired from active faculty status on May 31, 1995.

Professor Weinreich received his ANB., AM., and Ph.D. degrees from Columbia University in 1948, 1949, and 1953, respectively. From 1953-60, he was a physicist at Bell Labs. Professor Weinreich came to the University of Michigan as an associate professor of physics in 1960; he was promoted to professor in 1964.

In his early years at Michigan, Professor Weinreich and his colleagues were the first to report the generation of optical harmonics, thus founding the science of nonlinear optics. More recently, Professor Weinreich has been recognized for his work in musical physics. In 1979, he was awarded the first major National Science Foundation grant for a project in musical acoustics, which resulted in an influential Scientific American article. He has gone on to become a world authority in the field of musical physics. A fellow of the American Acoustical Society, he is recognized for his abilities to bring concepts from other fields of physics to the study of acoustics and for a number of significant discoveries in the discipline. In 1992, he was honored with the French Acoustical Society’s International Medal. The same year, he delivered the annual Klopsteg Lecture to the American Association of Physics Teachers and, in 1994, was distinguished public lecturer at the Acoustical Society’s annual meeting.
[addition: He was awarded the Silver Medal of the Acoustical Society of America in 2008].

A devoted teacher, Professor Weinreich has taught nearly every course the department offers; he also developed a revised elementary physics sequence for engineers and physicists in 1968-70. He earned a Distinguished Undergraduate Teaching Award in 1968 and was named a collegiate professor in 1975.

Professor Weinreich was ordained as an Episcopal priest in 1986. He accepted a position as rector of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hamburg, Michigan, in September 1994, as he began his phased retirement from the University.

The Regents now salute this distinguished professor by naming Gabriel Weinreich professor emeritus of physics.

Talk by Gabi Weinreich to the Resonance Group Reunion

This talk was given in October 1993.  Photos of the reunion are on this website.    (Mike Sanders spoke at Gabi’s retirement in 1995, and his remarks are also on this website.

Like a lot of us, I was given a topic by Jens and I wasn’t given the topic by Jens; it just appeared on the schedule: “Perspectives on Physics at Michigan”.  I interpret that to mean perspectives on my life in physics at Michigan.  I also want to say immediately at the beginning that we’ve heard in the last two days a lot of very fascinating and worthwhile and interesting reminiscences, and so I decided to go easy on the reminiscence dimensions and perhaps try to share with you a little more of what happened after all that, and where I find myself today thinking about where my career has been.  Life does pass and I see myself as being at the end of it—which isn’t supposed to be a macabre statement, but in the sense that I’m retiring and it’s like some of the beautiful operas when the hero is about to die there’s the aria which goes on for an hour and a half, and sometimes that’s by far the most beautiful music, so this is not a statement of pessimism but simply a statement of acquiescence in where life has carried me.

Of course in listening in these last two days there is what I think of as the Rashomon effect.  I don’t know whether you remember that movie, it was one of the early Japanese movies that came around, and was based on the same story as having been perceived by different people, and the different ways in which different people have seen the same thing.   I was struck –I was talking to John Pearl yesterday—I was struck by something—you know our appearances have all changed, by and large; John has a white beard–I don’t remember him with a white beard–and similarly for the rest of you– but I think in a way that’s a camouflage, because that disappears after about thirty seconds conversation–you don’t notice those changes anymore, it’s the same people you’ve always known–but it’s not the same people you’ve always known.  That’s the interesting thing; in fact we’ve all changed a great deal, and so the important distinction is between what is the same and what is not the same.

The story that Gary Cochran told about me had a punchline, “I was afraid it was something serious.” I felt really struck by that, not because it was  a stupid thing to say—I mean the list of stupid things I’ve said in my life is very long, but that I have so much trouble seeing that, so to speak, from the “inside,” identifying today with the person who said that; and that’s what sobers me up to what has happened to me during those years and I presume also what has happened to you.

Now I spent my thirties, forties fifties and sixties here.  That sounds like forty years, but it’s not the full forty years because I didn’t come at thirty I came at thirty two, and today I’m only sixty five.  Nonetheless,  I can think of four distinct decades in my life,  and sort of in an approximate way I can state how my view of life has changed during that time: In my thirties I thought that life was infinite; in my forties I thought that life was finite– that is, it’s possible that if I choose to do A, that may actually be instead of doing B–which in my thirties I didn’t realize.  In my fifties it became very clear that I’m playing for keeps. That this isn’t the end of my life, but a lot of decisions, perhaps most of the decisions that I’m making in my fifties are permanent decisions. And of course in my sixties I’m retiring and winding down.  I’m not saying that I’m about to die, but a big chunk of my life will now consist entirely of reminiscences.  Some of you know that there are other parts of my life that are beginning to blossom at this point, but that’s not part of “Perspectives on Physics.”

In connection with travel, I recall that when I went on a trip in my thirties I said, “Don’t forget your tickets”; in my forties I said “Don’t forget your passport”; in my fifties I said “Don’t forget your credit card”; and in my sixties I say, “Don’t forget your medications.”

That’s true, I’ve got a pillbox in my pocket!

Children–in my thirties children became a reality instead of mythical beasts;  In my forties the children were growing up.  In my fifties my children were getting married.  In my sixties, some of my children at least are getting divorced  –some of you may have shared that experience–and that’s a painful experience–it’s a very painful experience.

With regard to physics: In my thirties when I came here, I was exhilarated by the fact that I really understand advanced physics—that comes from teaching it of course; in my forties I was exhilarated because I really understand elementary physics!  In my fifties I had a vague impression that all these new subjects are a little bit confusing.  In my sixties I have a feeling I no longer understand it.  It’s obviously not literally true because I still taught physics;  with people and my colleagues, apparently, value an opportunity to talk physics with me from time to time.  But I feel very confused.

So, you come here for a reunion, and again something came out of conversation with you. I had a conversation with Gary Ihas and we talked about the colloquia that he remembered. He said that at the Physics colloquia at Michigan the speaker comes, but the speaker is challenged;  you and Peter are there, and you’re not going to let anybody get away with anything; it’s a lively discussion.  Gary went on to say “where I’ve been since then, in other academic institutions, that’s not the way it is.”  Well it’s not the way it is here anymore either–and I think the difference between me and most of you really at this point in our lives isn’t so much a matter of age; when I came here as a professor I was only seven years out of graduate school; and in fact since I ran through graduate school a bit on the young side, the sheer age difference was in fact even smaller than that.  So it’s not that I’m that much older–there are some people here that I’m just not older than period, but in any case it’s not an age difference any more, at this point.  If we just met we wouldn’t think so much about who is older and who is younger.  I think the difference is that you still have the illusion that I’m still that person in that setting — that professor who taught those courses in that particular way.  That’s the way memories get frozen when you leave a place–you look back on it and somehow, without thinking, believe that other places and other people’s lives don’t change.

That’s the power of reminiscence of course, and it’s not necessarily at all a negative power because there are things one has learned. But if you want to think about reality, Michigan is not the Michigan that you knew.  Colloquia at Michigan are not the colloquia that you knew.  The faculty doesn’t go to lunch anymore and  they don’t talk about elementary physics problems.  We used to talk a lot of elementary physics problems at lunch —  we would talk about simple problems–we beat them to death at the lunch table! Little details, little paradoxes that we were all intrigued by and inspired by–that doesn’t happen anymore.  It seems that elementary physics isn’t interesting to most of my colleagues anymore.

I came to Michigan from Bell Labs which was a much better place to do research–I’m not exactly prepared to defend that in an absolute way, but in many ways Bell Labs was the perfect place to do research— I came here because I wanted to teach.  And when I first came here I was received in a way that seemed consistent with that; the important people in the department: Dennison, Uhlenbeck, Case, that’s what they wanted me to do; that’s what they assumed everybody else was doing.

I was honored for the fact that apparently I did a good job teaching, and I don’t know when that rug was pulled out from under me, but it was, and still after all these years there is a great deal of bitterness in me about that–in fact I remember one important discussion with the executive committee when I went in to protest the way I was being treated and it became very clear what the issue was.  The people on the executive committee were saying “Gabi, look, you’re good enough to do research, why are you teaching?”  And I said, “Look, I’m good enough to teach! Why should I be doing research?  Anybody can do research.”

Of course neither one is exactly true, but it shows you the kind of dead-end that I found myself in after a lot of you left.  And then of course I had to scramble back; I decided at least I would make it a challenge; at least I would do something weird. I would show them that I could get funding, including in a field that isn’t being funded, and that’s how I got into musical acoustics.  It’s been very interesting.

What are my thoughts as I listen to and watch all of you? What are the new thoughts that come into my mind, what are the old thoughts which are being awakened by it?  The atmosphere that existed in the resonance group has been commented on many times in the last few days, and perhaps I will comment a little bit on it too in a minute.

But there’s a particular concern that I have. The particular concern is–by the way, let me ask, how many of you are teaching? Okay, so there are quite a number–I want to make something very clear because I had to make it clear to myself over the years too–I was listening to George Gamota saying in the closing minutes of the last session that having your students not do basic research doesn’t necessarily represent a failure. Now I couldn’t agree with him more, but I will be the first to admit that in my younger days I did have that conceit, I did have that arrogance.  I did have the feeling that nobody can tell me what I’m going to do and that makes me very great and important and puts me in a more important position in society than other people occupy.  But George, I’ve long ago lost that point of view, I’ve long ago stopped feeling as a matter of principle that what we used to call basic research is what matters and that anything else is a failure–believe me–you reminded me of something that I haven’t thought of in a long time.

However,  I am a life-long teacher and I sense the real problem that the atmosphere that we had here isn’t self-propagating.  Is there a mechanism so that the next generation and the next generation and the next generation can continue to flourish in the same way, or is it being diluted, diluted, diluted?  We have that memory, we talk about it with our friends.  Some of them get an inkling of what it’s about, others don’t, and soon two more generations of students will be gone. That’s my concern.

Teaching at a university–although it’s certainly not the only way of contributing,  to the propagation of this creative atmosphere– is one setting that makes it relatively simple (if one has that understanding) to communicate it to other people who are coming in.  That’s my concern and I just share it with you on that level–I’m not particularly talking doom, nor am I saying everything is great.  I don’t know.  But basic or not, we were interested in research!

I’m just reminded that two weeks ago the coffee pot in which our secretary makes coffee every day–one of those Mr. Coffee type things–stopped working.  It would make coffee but it would take five hours to make coffee–just  a tiny dribble, and people were saying, “It costs 35 dollars; throw the damn thing out; buy a new one,” and I said, “Wait! Let me get a screwdriver.” You know–that’s what we always did, that’s really what we did.  Now, it’s hardly basic research.  Actually I was very frustrated because I took the whole thing apart—of course it was fascinating but I couldn’t see anything wrong.  I don’t know whether many of you know how that machine works.  But I’ll give you a hint–there’s only one heater–okay–maybe some of you know.  In any case, I took it apart but I couldn’t see anything wrong.  I put it back together, I poured the water in, it made coffee, it was fine. I said,”Well, something was dirty something was clogged, who cares; it’s all right now, I cleaned it out.” But in the afternoon it went back to the other way.  I think I managed to hide it so it wouldn’t show on my face, but I was really quite mortified because the young woman who had the office across from me, who’s a professor of physics. looked at it and said, “You know it’s got to be the thermostat,” Of course! I hadn’t thought of that. I’m old, I’m decrepit, it should have been absolutely obvious that the thermostat, once it clicks off, isn’t clicking back in and that’s it and it can easily be replaced–to replace the element which includes the thermostat it costs seven dollars instead of thirty-five.  But I couldn’t do it; I failed.  Very, very mortifying.

Okay, so what was it about? Let me just try to wrap up in a few sentences because you’re not the only ones who are starving, I’m starving too.  To a large degree based on what I heard and to a large degree based on what I’ve thought over the years,  how can I describe that atmosphere in the resonance group?  And by the way, we shouldn’t be arrogant either —we weren’t the only ones in the world that had that special atmosphere.  That’s fine — that doesn’t take away from what we had.  One example that’s been brought up repeatedly is the nickel bet.  Somebody –and I don’t remember who–said it so beautifully: the right to be wrong.  It’s a very, very important ingredient of a real discussion.  The right to be wrong.  You were not looked down on for the fact that you’re wrong.  And I don’t know why you should be looked down on for the fact that you’re wrong.  But in many places in the world,  probably most places in the world–you are looked down on if you’re wrong.  And so there’s a lot of temptation and pressure either to fake it and make it look as though you’re right even though you were in fact wrong–or simply not to offer opinions that aren’t safe.  Now we never had that pressure — it wasn’t an issue –and because we didn’t have it  our thoughts and speculations were liberated in a way that they just could not be otherwise.

In the process of listening to you reminisce I became aware of how much my teaching approaches have changed over the years; now I’m retiring from teaching. For example, that story about how I filled up a whole blackboard and somewhere in the middle of it was a mistake and I had to find it—I think today I would have said, “You go home and find it.  It should be minus, it’s coming out plus. You find out where I was wrong.”  And it’s really bad teaching not to do that–absolutely bad teaching not to do that.  It was my pride that kept me from doing that when I was younger.  I had to show that in just a glance or two I could find that mistake.  Luckily for me I could usually do it — I was very smart in those days.  But today I probably couldn’t find it.  But I also think its not a good way to teach.

I had a similar experience recently during one of my lectures on electricity and magnetism: A student called my attention to something that wasn’t right–I had derived something that seemed inconsistent with something else that was also part of the subject.  I did try to find the problem, but it was more than just a plus or a minus;  there was something conceptually wrong.  So after thinking for a minute I said, “I’m not going to find it now. Next time, next class meeting I’ll have the answer.”  So I went back to my office and found that I had made an interesting mistake, an error from which one can learn something.   Nonetheless  it was  a blunder.  Before beginning the next lecture I said “Now first we have to clear up this question from the last hour” and I explained what had gone wrong.   The student came up afterwards and he was amazed.  He said, “It didn’t seem to bother you — you didn’t seem to be defensive about the fact that you had blundered, you just stood there and explained what your mistake had been.”  And I said something to him then–I was lucky because it came out in a good formulation–so I’ll repeat it for you now, because it was part of that atmosphere: “Everybody makes mistakes,” I said.  “Who do think taught you to catch mistakes?”

And so I put that into the same category as stuff that was going on in the resonance group. That was the skill we really valued.  And to an outsider it often seemed like a cruel skill, like jumping on somebody, like finding somebody’s weak point as though it were personal weak points that we’re looking for; it was nothing of the kind. We were looking for the weak point in the argument, we were training each other to find, to catch mistakes.  And, of course, there’s absolutely nothing that replaces that kind of education.

The third item, that to my great surprise no one has mentioned in these last few days, it was something, an item that was crucial in the way we always dealt with each other, something that was assumed in all our interactions, something that I was exhilarated yesterday as soon as we got together for the first meeting to see that quality immediately blossom forth from the group.  And to me I think a crucial,  crucial quality.  Now as a teacher, if I weren’t starving, I would ask you to tell me what you think I’m thinking of–by the way, does anybody have something?

From audience:  “I am starving.” “Group self examination”  …..

Yes, group self-examination is certainly part of it.  But this could go on forever because it’s not what I was thinking of.

But what I was thinking of is something that you all know and you’ll all say of course: Humor!  Humor!  It was all done with a sense of humor.  Now it’s certainly true that in Peter Franken’s case we might say “Come on we don’t mean that much,” and yet, as one of the guiding spirits of the group, it was important.

Humor and research, these are very similar entities actually.  Sort of looking for the unexpected twist which clicks, and which everyone else knows clicks too.  It’s not just a private thing–you can’t make jokes to yourself.  You have to make jokes to other people.  There’s something about humor that clicks, and in a certain mysterious way that’s also the essence of the type of mental and emotional activity that we’re engaged in.   I thought of a metaphor just this morning listening–remember the story of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland? The Cheshire Cat sat on a branch, with a smile, and as the situation developed the Cheshire Cat disappeared more and more and what was left was a smile. That’s research, it seems to me, to start with a cat and find the smile.  The smile is abstract, the smile is not really something you can take off a cat, that’s what’s so funny in the way Lewis Carroll describes it–and yet in a way the Cheshire Cat is something–someone–whose essence is its smile.

The same story would not have worked if the Cheshire Cat had frowned, and as the action developed the cat disappeared, leaving only its frown; it wouldn’t work.  We wouldn’t be interested in that story. It wouldn’t make a good story. It made a good story because what remains is a smile. I think what remains with us when we turn on the memory of the resonance group and refresh ourselves in that memory is a smile. Everything was funny! Everything was silly; everything was ridiculous; everything was hilarious! We didn’t have to watch out for that, and what I said yesterday morning about how appalled I tend to be about people who make decisions in Washington who don’t understand, it struck me later: they don’t have any sense of humor!  Official releases are not funny, that’s what wrong with them!

I won’t reminisce about my research;  it meandered over many, many fields in the course of my career.  Lots of my contributions really involved kibitzing more than research, and in many ways that was my role in the resonance group: People would call on me and say “Do it right for us. There’s something confusing here. How does one say it so it’s consistent, so it’s correct?” It was very flattering to feel that I did occupy that role.  It’s a role that I occupy today in the field of musical acoustics, which is a very interesting and fruitful field, but there are a lot of people in it who work by fruitful intuition and lack the discipline.  So that was always what I enjoyed doing most, and even my own research became a kind of kibitzing.

With regard to teaching and of course the contrast between the two ways–in the beginning I was young and I liked to impress people. I think I did teach well, but I liked to impress people, I liked to impress students, I liked to impress colleagues. How do you impress colleagues about a course you’re giving? That’s a challenge. I mean they’re not in the classroom listening. There are tricks to impressing colleagues:  you show them your final exam–which you have made up so as to look very impressive but of course you’ve taught your class how to do those problems. It’s all unconscious, it’s all subliminal, but it can all be a great fraud! Probably I’m being a little hard on myself, but those were important elements when I was younger.  They really aren’t important now.  And it’s rather curious that since they became less important my student ratings went up.  I’m probably more relaxed.

During my time at Michigan I became more and more aware that conversation is a very important element of teaching.  Conversation is taking on the challenge of understanding what it is that people are saying to you, and taking on the challenge of giving them an answer that they will understand.  So it is conversation with colleagues, with students with friends, that has become in many ways the central activity of my life, with God, which is something I didn’t used to do, and other sorts of conversation.  I like to listen, and I too have something to say–you’d know I’m lying if I didn’t admit that, but it is somewhat different, but it draws on that tradition.

Real conversation opens the real vulnerability of the people who are conversing, and it takes a strength, for which age is useful, to be willingly vulnerable, to realize that the little bit one could possibly lose is trivial compared to the amount that one can gain.  Conversation can be a very scary activity, but I would say, at this age as I’m retiring, that’s what I’m into.  But I feel it’s not a new activity. All these attributes of life in the resonance group that we have recalled all involved a trust of each other is a rare gift  that none of us will ever lose having once experienced it.

I’m starting my last aria.  I hope it will be a long one, I hope it will a beautiful one, and whether for you, whether it’s the last or the middle or an early one, I wish you all to get the same enjoyment and satisfaction out of it. Thank you.

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  1. Resonance Group Reunion-1993 | MichiganPhysics

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