Mike Sanders and his Students

In 2007 the students of Mike Sanders gathered to celebrate his 80th birthday.  in 1963 and then on the faculty at the University of Minnesota, Mike joined the Michigan faculty from which he retired in 2000.


Sanders: at Weinreich retirement

Weinreich Retirement Dinner
Remarks-T. M. Sanders
7 April, 1995


Those few of you who are of a certain age may remember a book and television series of the early 1950s called “I Led Three Lives.” I have known Gabi for a very long time, but I have not known all of his lives. I have learned what I know of his early life in bits, gleaned from conversations over the years. Gabi spent nearly thirteen years of his life in Vilna, then geographically in Poland, now Vilnius, capital of Lithuania.

His father, Max Weinreich was director of the YIVO, an institution devoted to the language, culture and literature of Yiddish, Gabi’s first tongue. The family had a cook with whom Gabi also spoke, in what he later learned was a different language, Polish. He grew up in a richly cultured, secular, socialist Jewish family in a larger Jewish culture, embedded in an urban environment. In September 1939, the Germans invaded Poland from the West and the Russians from the East. Vilna was in the Eastern portion, occupied by the Soviets. Gabi once told me that he had heard on Soviet radio that Stalin was the world’s greatest skier. I recall speculating with him whether he was a theoretical or experimental skier.

In late 1940, Gabi’s father and older brother attended a conference in Sweden, and went from there directly to the United States. Gabi and his mother remained in Vilna, awaiting documents which would permit them to emigrate. As I learned ten years ago, when I was bitten by a dog on the eve of my wedding, Gabi was bitten by a neighbor’s dog while they were awaiting the papers. He was given the Pasteur rabies treatment (The dog actually was rabid.), the papers arrived, and he and his mother departed. Their route took them to Moscow, on the Trans-Siberian railroad to Vladivostok (an eleven day journey), to Yokohama, San Francisco, and then to New York, where the family was re-united in early 1941. Hitler invaded the USSR the following June. The society of Gabi’s childhood was “disappeared.”

Gabi spent his teens in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan (near the George Washington bridge). He started school knowing practically no English (On this point I have only his word; actually I am skeptical.) He took phonetic notes, which his brother (a linguist) helped him decipher. One of his early recollections is hearing a teacher declare, “The United States is a capitalist country.” Startled, Gabi looked around to see if anyone else noticed what she had confessed. He, after all, knew that this was true, but he was amazed to find that anyone would admit such a thing.

He was an undergraduate at City College and at Columbia, which brings me to the point when we first met.

Columbia Days

He and I began graduate school at Columbia in the Fall of 1948. I am not certain whether we met that first semester, when I was still supported by the GI Bill, and did not have an office at the Pupin Lab. I became a Teaching Assistant the next term, and Gabi and I arranged to share an office (with Andy Sessler) the following Fall. I remember Gabi walking into the office with a Russian book he had found in a bookstore. (Russian was another language he “did not know.”) The book was Landau and Lifshitz’s Classical Theory of Fields. We were absolutely stupefied by Landau’s elegant (and totally new to us) treatment of Relativity.

In the Fall of 1949 we began our research, he with I. I. Rabi and I with C. H. Townes. Both of us began working with younger physicists, recent doctorates: Gabi with Vernon Hughes, and I with Arthur Schawlow. Our labs were three doors apart on the tenth floor of Pupin. Gabi’s lab, and the atomic beam machine he inherited, had just given the result which first showed the electron to have an anomalous magnetic moment.

Rabi was a formidable figure, and dominated the department in many ways. He was actually chairman only in our first years there, but remained the dominant personality much longer. Henry Foley used to say that at the Faculty Club, the physics people had two types of luncheon conversation. If Rabi was absent, the topic was Rabi. If not, there was some difficulty finding a topic until Rabi chose one. He seemed to find it necessary to dominate and intimidate everyone in the department-students and faculty alike. The first person who could deal with him was Jack Steinberger who, along with Robert Serber, arrived at Columbia in the 1950s as part of the exodus from Berkeley over a loyalty oath. Steinberger (never overburdened by politeness) and Rabi were overheard by a student in a conversation which went like this:
Rabi: I don’t know about that.
Steinberger: Well I do.
(end of conversation)

The late 1940s were past the time Rabi considered the “Golden Age” of his physics. He was, nonetheless, still a very creative thinker. He was also involved, at the time, in fateful decisions in the “corridors of power.” In the Fall of 1949, he was a member of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission which recommended against a “Crash Program” to develop a Hydrogen Bomb. This recommendation was to play a key role in the loyalty hearings “In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer” in the Spring of 1954. It was reading Rabi’s testimony in that affair that first made me appreciate his strengths.

Experiments, in those days, had a good deal of glass apparatus, and we both learned a certain amount of glass blowing (as did our slightly senior colleague, Peter Franken). When Gabi needed a professional, he called on Karl Schumann, the University glassblower. Karl was a temperamental artist, who spoke a colorful, heavily-accented, English, referring to his colleagues as “neon sign benders.” Gabi’s experiment used 3He (Rabi obtained 3 NTP cc of gas for him.), for which a Gabi bought a commercial glass mercury diffusion pump. It was a glorious object, very large, and full of jets, water jackets, and spirals for the returning mercury. A group of us gathered around when the day came for Schumann to glassblow the pump into the apparatus. Karl preferred to work in front of an audience, and invited one into his shop at the end of each work day. The great man arrived, put down his tools, and walked slowly and silently around the marvelous new pump. Then he turned to Gabi and said, “What did you pay for this piece of crap?”

At Columbia, Gabi first taught a course in Physics of Music. He amazed me, in demonstrating the asymmetric nature of the transient produced by a piano, by playing a piece of classical music backwards, recording it, and playing the tape backwards. The music was then forward, but each note was time-reversed. The notes sounded the way a harmonica does if one inhales rather than blowing.

Bell Labs

In 1953 Gabi completed his Ph.D. and went to Bell Labs, where he was interviewed and hired by William Shockley (who had entertained a Columbia colloquium by playing “How Dry I Am” on an audio oscillator made with a germanium transistor and powered by a battery made of a couple of coins and some damp paper).

His Bell Labs physics which I know best is something called the Acoustoelectric Effect which he discovered and named, only to find that someone else had apparently done the same thing earlier. (It is characteristic of Gabi to work something out from the beginning before going to the library.) He was very discouraged, and retreated to his laboratory for a few days, doing some therapeutic glassblowing, before going to the library to read the earlier paper. He found that, in fact, it missed most of the crucial physics, now described by the so-called “Weinreich relation.” In the summer of 1957, Gabi invited me to join him at Bell Labs to test the theory, and see what we might learn from experiment. He and Harry White, his technician, had already verified some of the predictions in a preliminary experiment. Harry learned to grow his own germanium crystals, I succeeded in getting an apparatus through Bell Labs’s shop, we learned how to operate a hydrogen liquefier, and we were taking data by the end of the summer. The result was some pretty physics which led both of us to some other interesting experiments.

University of Michigan

Gabi came to Michigan in 1960, I in 1963. He developed a graduate course in Solid State Physics, from which came his 1965 book Solids: Elementary theory for advanced students. He taught Physics 510 (then a course in Classical Thermodynamics, out of which came another book Fundamental Thermodynamics, in 1968. Since he and I had adjoining offices, with a connecting door, I was forced to learn a great deal during this period. His unconventional and original approach in the books has limited their adoption as textbooks in standard courses, but they continue to be cited in the literature by an enthusiastic, if too narrow, audience. He then undertook a complete overhaul of our General Physics courses for science and engineering students. The result, again, was very original but, like the Feynman Lectures, was not widely regarded as suitable for a standard course. He also developed a very successful course in the Physics of Music.

At Michigan, Gabi’s first research was as part of the “Resonance Group”, which Peter Franken and Dick Sands has started earlier. He made a crucial contribution to the production of optical second harmonics by pointing to the necessity of using a material lacking inversion symmetry. His first Ph.D. students worked in areas of Solid State physics which grew out of his work at Bell Labs.

After some work in Atomic Physics, collaborating with Jens Zorn, he started his own work in Musical Acoustics. One of his first efforts was to try to understand why a piano has more than one string for each note. The result, showing why the piano’s transient is not a simple exponential decay, appeared both in the physics literature and in a cover article in Scientific American. One of his major accomplishments was to convince the National Science Foundation to support his work, in a field previously denied support as a matter of policy. He had to do a lot of convincing, at the end of which Senator William Proxmire singled out his grant for a “Golden Fleece” award. Gabi explained the value of his research to the Senator so convincingly that Proxmire was reduced to complaining that he wished the NSF officials had been nearly so persuasive. In his research on the violin, one of his important accomplishments was to show how the outgoing wave from a violin could be measured, even in the presence of incoming radiation. Such a measurement was possible since both the amplitude and phase of a vibration are accessible. Previous workers had generally relied on intensity data only. He also devised ingenious arguments, based on reciprocity, to relate vibration of the violin body to the radiated acoustic field. His recent violin research treated the physics of a bowed string and utilized a computer in a feedback loop, constituting what he calls a “Digital Bow.”

He has maintained a collaboration with acousticians at Pierre Boulez’s institute IRCAM (near the Pomipdou Centre), has supervised doctoral work at French universities, and was awarded the International Medal of the Société francaise d’acoustique in 1992. Within the last few years, he has been the Klopsteg lecturer of the American Association of Physics Teachers, and a Distinguished Public Lecturer (in Boston’s Symphony Hall) of the Acoustical Society of America. After the death of his friend Arthur Benade, Gabi served as the Acoustical Society’s editor for musical acoustics.

In addition to the research he has published in Solid State, Atomic Physics, and Musical Acoustics, he and I have co-authored several papers. Most of this research had the form of my posing a question and Gabi answering it.


It would not be right for me to omit a part of Gabi’s life which has been of great importance to him in recent years. Beginning approximately twenty years ago, he became increasingly interested in religion. His study of scripture required him to read Hebrew, another of the languages he does not know and Greek. He followed a complicated trajectory to ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church in 1986, to service as an Assistant Rector at a church in Ann Arbor, finally (in phased retirement) to become half-time Rector of St. Stephen’s parish in Hamburg. It is an activity from which he clearly derives a great deal of satisfaction, and through which he accomplishes good in the community.

He and I, of course, discuss religious matters a good deal over coffee. He applies the same startling originality and intelligence to these activities as he does to his physics.