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Anthony French, professor emeritus of physics, dies at 96

Longtime Department of Physics professor assisted in nuclear bomb projects in England and Los Alamos, and was a leader in physics education.
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Anthony French
Anthony French
Photo courtesy of the Department of Physics

Anthony “Tony” Philip French, MIT professor emeritus in physics and a notable leader in physics education, died on Feb. 3. He was 96 years old.

French was born and educated in Great Britain. After finishing his undergraduate work in 1942, he assisted in the nuclear bomb projects in England and Los Alamos. After the war he completed his graduate work in nuclear physics and became a faculty member at Cambridge University. In 1955 he took a faculty position at the University of South Carolina and shortly later became chair of its physics department. In 1962, he moved to MIT where he developed a new curriculum for introductory physics. In the 1970s as associate chair of physics he managed and led the teaching of MIT's large introductory physics course and wrote four of the MIT Introductory Physics series of textbooks. He also played a role in physics education beyond MIT. From 1975 to 1981 he was chairman of the Commission on Physics Education of the International Union of Pure and Applied Physics, and from 1983 to 1986 he was successively vice president, president-elect, president, and past president of the American Association of Physics Teachers. He retired from MIT in 1991 but remained active in the community of physics educators. In 1993 he chaired the committee that set the examinations for the XXIV International Physics Olympiad.

French was born Nov. 20, 1920, in Brighton, England. The son of a printer, French earned a scholarship to Sydney Sussex College at Cambridge University, following an early interest in science, especially classical mechanics. He was particularly interested in lectures by Egon Bretscher, a Swiss physicist at Cambridge, who steered French toward nuclear physics.

After receiving a BA in physics in 1942, French was recruited by Bretscher into the Tube Alloys Project, Britain's code name for its atomic bomb research. French's job was helping Bretscher measure fast neutron cross-sections, information needed to design a bomb. In 1944, the British effort was merged with the American Manhattan Project, and Tony was sent with the British mission to Los Alamos. “He was 23, barely educated in physics, and suddenly removed from grim wartime Britain to a land of sunshine where you could have oranges and eggs (in Britain the ration was one egg per week) and set down in the mountains of New Mexico with some of the best and most famous physicists in the world,” says Professor Charles H. Holbrow, Colgate University emeritus professor of physics and frequent visitor to MIT. “It was exciting.”

French worked in a group led by physicist Edward Teller, who wanted to develop what would eventually become the hydrogen bomb, the so-called "Super." Teller would not work on the fission bomb project after he was refused leadership of the project's theory group, so he was given a small group to study the Super. Bretscher and French worked in Teller's small group, and French measured reactions of light nuclei such as d + d --> p + 3H and d + 3H --> n + 4He.

After the war ended, French married Naomi Livesay, a mathematician from Montana who had worked in Richard Feynman's computation group at Los Alamos. They spent their honeymoon driving around the American Northwest in a car they bought from fellow Los Alamos researcher and, later, convicted atomic spy, Klaus Fuchs.

In 1946, they moved to Cambridge University in England, where, as a fellow and director of studies in Natural Sciences at Pembroke College, French became a faculty member and earned his doctorate in nuclear physics using declassified results from his work at Los Alamos. French also worked briefly at the new Atomic Energy Research Establishment, known as AERE or, colloquially, Harwell.

In 1955 French emigrated to the United States to teach at the University of South Carolina. A few months after he arrived, he was appointed the new chair when the physics department chairman died. For the next six years, French led the department's vigorous development of research and teaching, and created and taught a course in modern physics. He also wrote his textbook "Principles of Modern Physics."

French was working in the golden age of science education reform. Many critics were calling for a return to fundamentals, “drill and memorization,” but with the launch of Sputnik, the American public demanded higher academic standards in math and science.

In 1956, MIT physics professor Jerrold Zacharias, with support from the National Science Foundation, formed PSSC, the Physical Science Study Committee, a large-scale effort to improve the content and teaching of high school physics. Zacharias and fellow professor Francis Friedman were impressed by French’s physics book and in 1960 invited French to MIT to attend a one-week PSSC workshop.

The workshop was run by Zacharias, Patterson Hume, Donald Ivey, and Eric Rogers. One of French’s favorite experiments from the class was the soda-straw balance, which measured milligrams or less with materials costing no more than a few cents.

In his essay “50 Years Later: Discovering the PSSC: A Personal Memoir,” French declared that the “PSSC had enormous impact on physics teaching, not just in high school but at all levels, and not just in America, but all over the world.”

French took what he learned at MIT and introduced PSSC to South Carolina physics teachers. However, he later noted his frustration with the limitations of PSSC teaching: The Saturday course lasted a whole academic year but didn’t offer academic credit, for one thing. “Some of my participants were probably better off teaching a traditional course that better matched their own limitations,” he recalled. “But there is little doubt in my mind that these conferences played an indispensable role in ensuring that the PSSC program, as it became more and more widely used, would nevertheless preserve its freshness and its distinctive character.”

After being recruited by Zacharias to the MIT physics faculty in 1962, French played a large role in the required introductory physics courses at MIT. When French asked Physics Chairman Bill Buechner to add more students to his small experimental physics course, Buechner replied, "That's of no use to me. Take the whole freshman class." So, French began teaching introductory mechanics to hundreds of freshmen.

"I wanted to be cautious about giving it a name,” said French. “So I called it, blandly, ‘Physics: A New Introductory Course.’ I couldn't imagine how I could have been so stupid. The students read that as ‘PANIC’ … it was known forever afterwards as the PANIC course!”

In 1970, French was appointed associate chair, and through the 1970s and 1980s he managed the introductory physics courses, taught in them, and wrote his MIT "Introductory Physics Series" books. Today, his books on relativity and waves are still being used.

Professor Edwin F. Taylor recalled French’s style of teaching as lecture-based, and that he put a great deal of effort into preparing what he would say in class.

“Think of Lecture Hall 26-100 full twice a day for just physics, watching a demonstration lecture where each basic idea was shown with a set of by-then well-developed standard demonstrations carried out by the lecturer, with a phalanx of professional assistants setting up each one, and working with professionals to develop new ones. Tony French gave most of the monster lectures in 26-100 to HUGE audiences.”

A bit of an introvert, French was “wonderful with words, deeply literate, historically competent,” says Taylor. Added Holbrow, “He was not known as a colorful or flamboyant lecturer. He strove to be lucid and, above all, correct. A number of his publications straighten out kinks that have grown into traditional presentations of physics, correcting myths or dispensing with shortcuts that are bad physics.”

"He had a sense of humor," says Holbrow, “and in the 1960s he had a bout of enthusiasm for writing Clerihews (double-dactyls). For example:

Higglety pigglety
Robert A. Millikan
Scrutinized oil drops
And so measured e;
Studied phenomena
Won the Nobel Prize and
Said 'Look at ME!'

(For more of French's clerihews, see page 128 of Robert L. Weber (ed.) "More Random Walks in Science," The Institute of Physics, Adam Hilger, Ltd., Bristol, 1982)

French worked with Taylor in 1978 to write "An Introduction to Quantum Physics." “A unique feature of our quantum book was the use of photon polarization states as example of pure, mixed, entangled, and all such features of quantum physics now so central in the news,” recalled Taylor. “We handed out to students little kits that included cleaved calcite crystals, about a centimeter in dimension that separated any incoming light beam into perpendicularly linearly polarized quantum states. This would work for a flood of photons or one photon per hour. In the kit also was a so-called quarter-wave plate (which as I remember converts linearly polarized light into circularly polarized light), tiny Polaroid linear polarizing sheets. When we all wrote the quantum book, many of our described atomic experiments were Thought Experiments, but now can be carried out in practice.”

French said that his focus more on teaching rather than research made him a bit of an “oddball” at MIT. He was grateful to Zacharias for his view that the lecturer in physics was as important as the researcher. French advocated having introductory physics concentrate less on content and more on process; it should show students how physicists think. He was an effective user of demonstrations, and enjoyed devising new ones. These demonstrations won him recognition and were the basis for several publications in the American Journal of Physics. He also collaborated with Philip Morrison and John King, two other innovative MIT physics teachers. “The good synergy among these three helped MIT physics teaching evolve toward what it has become today,” says Holbrow.

French was recognized for his participation in international efforts to improve physics teaching, for editing "Einstein: A Centenary Volume" (1979) and for co-editing "Niels Bohr: A Centenary Volume" (1985). In 1976, he received a Distinguished Service Citation from AAPT. In 1980, he was awarded the University Medal of the Charles University, Prague, for contributions to physics education, and in 1988, the Bragg Medal and Prize of the Institute of Physics (London) for contributions to the teaching of physics. In 1989, AAPT awarded him the Hans Christian Oersted Medal in recognition of his notable contributions to the teaching of physics, and in 1993 its Melba Newell Phillips Award for "his creative leadership, for his dedicated service, and for his exceptional contributions to physics education."

French lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His first wife, Naomi (Livesay) French, died in 2001. In 2002 he married Dorothy Jensen-French, and is survived by her. He is also survived by his children Martin French and Gillian Peck; by his step-children Peter, Christine, Katheryn and Lisa; and by his granddaughter Sara French.

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