Web Exclusives: TigersRoar

Letter Box


A letter 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 writ large.

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.

Craig Sherman '89
San Francisco, Calif.

Respond to this letter
Send a letter to PAW

Go back to our online Letter Box Table of Contents


Current Issue    Online Archives    Printed Issue Archives
Advertising Info    Reader Services    Search    Contact PAW    Your Class Secretary