from an alumn about Professor David Wilkinson
February 15, 2003
I just heard of Professor David Wilkinson's death on September 5, 2002.
He touched me in a magical way, as only a few teachers have during my
life. In 1991 I took introductory physics from Professor Wilkinson. A
portion of the class was devoted to personal projects, and Professor Wilkinson
encouraged me to pursue one I'd been fascinated by since childhood: re-enacting
Ben Franklin's experiment key, kite and all whereupon Franklin
discovered that lightning was simply an instance of static-electricity
Professor Wilkinson walked a fellow student and me through the project
with infectious enthusiasm and curiosity. Together, the three of us built
a kite many kites, actually, and repeatedly crashed and broke them.
When we were close to giving up, Professor Wilkinson brought us to his
office and pulled out a physicists' equivalent of The Sharper Image and
ordered a 10-foot balloon.
We waited till a suitably awful-weather night and headed out with
our 10-foot balloon, and two 5-foot high helium tanks onto the
roof of Fine Hall. After blowing up the biggest balloon we'd ever seen
(remember when you were a kid wondering how big a helium balloon you'd
need to fly? Well, 10 feet will take a newborn on quite a ride but none
of us were in serious danger), we attached metal wire and a strong tether
and spooled the balloon out. It took half an hour in pouring rain and
hard winds to get the balloon up close to the thunderclouds, and another
half hour before our ammeter started registering a charge.
Then Professor Wilkinson detached the ammeter, fished into his raincoat
and pulled out an old fashioned key and handed it to me to hold close
to the wire. Within seconds, I saw and felt small sparks leap from the
wire to the key. Each of us took turns reliving in visceral detail
one of the great discoveries of the last century. It was magnificent.
Professor Wilkinson taught me valuable lessons about teaching and leaming.
No question was too simple. No, mystery too mundane to explore. I will
never forget him.