Rutgers physicist gets elected to distinguished academy
In the 1940s, a theorist working at Columbia University earned a reputation for breaking something every time he visited a lab. Eventually, the physicist was no longer allowed in the lab.
Daniel Friedan, a distinguished professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Rutgers, told the story of the physicist to show that many theorists do not have the aptitude for experiments. He prefers to think about ideas and how they are expressed in mathematics.
Friedan is one of 204 new members elected to the 2014 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, according to a press release on AAAS’s website.
The AAAS is one of the nation’s oldest learned societies and independent policy research centers, according to its website.
Its members represent some of the most accomplished scholars and practitioners in the world.
Mark Robinson, chief operating officer of the AAAS, said the primary criteria for election into the academy is excellence in the individual’s field and a record of continued accomplishment.
Once someone is nominated, he said the candidate goes through an 18-month review process before they are invited into the new member class.
Friedan said it is nice to have been elected into the AAAS, as it reflects well on Rutgers and the New High Energy Theory Center, which he established as a co-founder in 1989 when he started working at Rutgers.
“Part of my motivation was the students, the young people. They benefit from having a state university that offers them first class education,” Friedan said. “And you need first class research at the university level in order to give them a first class education.”
The center does research in fundamental theoretical physics and mathematical physics, in attempt to understand what the world is made of, he said.
Friedan teaches recitations for “General Physics,” and has lectured in general physics in the past. He said he does not like broadcasting to a room and much prefers getting to work with students in smaller recitations and during his office hours.
He expressed frustration with the way high schools prepare students for college.
“It really is shameful how badly the high schools do,” he said.
In order to compensate for the students’ lack of knowledge, Friedan said he has to avoid using complicated mathematics.
Based on his wife’s experience as a high school math teacher, he said it is not the students’ fault, but the administration’s.
“The other thing that makes it hard is how the high schools condition students to think [in terms of] multiple choice,” Friedan said. “I spend a lot of time getting people to think about the ideas and how to solve problems.”
He said he has noticed over the years that textbooks have evolved to include less and less mathematics. Friedan’s wife noticed over the years that high schools would replace textbooks with less difficult ones every once in a while, and the average textbooks would become the advanced ones.
“The students are very intelligent and work very hard, and they have just not been taught well in high school,” he said. “A lot of them are motivated by getting grades, but a lot of them really want to learn how to do well.”
Monica Amoo-Achampong, a pre-health post baccalaureate student, said she is completing a few science courses before applying to medical school. She had Friedan as a teaching assistant last semester for “Physics 203.”
“I started going to his office hours, where he’d encourage students to fully understand the basic ideas of physics before trying to plug in numbers into formulas,” she said in an email.
She said it is rare to find a professor as willing as Friedan has been to help students.
“His help throughout both semesters has prepared me well for the physics concepts that will be on the [Medical College Admission Test], and built my confidence in being able to use what I already know to understand the things that I don’t,” Amoo-Achampong said.
Brittany Martinez, a School of Environmental and Biological Sciences sophomore, said Professor Friedan was her teaching assistant for “General Physics 203” as well this past fall semester.
Coming in with a poor background in physics, Martinez said she was not confident in the course material.
“While at his office hours, each student with a question would have to go up to the board and begin working on the problem, even if they had no idea how to even start the problem,” Martinez said in an email.
At first, she was intimidated to go up to the board, but soon found that method to be beneficial because being forced to struggle through the problem made her think critically about how to solve it.
“Through Professor Friedan’s teaching strategies and support, I was able to gain a better grasp on the material and be successful in the course,” she said.
She said Friedan is not a fan of using recipes to solve problems, instead wanting each student to truly understand.
“Throughout my experience in ‘General Physics 203’ and ‘[General Physics] 204’ as well as attending Professor Friedan’s office hours, I can see how my confidence has increased in physics, and how it has positively impacted my ability to tackle problems not only in physics but my other courses as well,” Martinez said.