Posted on Aug 1, 2000

Ken Schick of the Physics Department says you're doing science well when you ask a question and it can be answered by a simple experiment.

Take, for example, the question, how fast does light travel? Using a set-up that looks like a metal pegboard mounted with several mirrors and a laser, Schick and his first-year physics students can measure the velocity of light accurately using the ability to measure time intervals to within one-ten billionth of a second.

“It looks so simple and is so elegant,” he says.

Schick, the Frank and Louise Bailey Professor of Physics, retired this June after forty-one years at the College. “Perhaps I'll do a little more reading, perhaps a bit more traveling …. It will be nice to have more time to do the things I love,” he says. That includes spending more time with his grandchildren and his children — Ruth '82, a professor of gender and women's studies at Otago University in New Zealand; Karen '83, an obstetrician/gynecologist in Saratoga Springs, and Louis '88, a physicist in Slingerlands, N.Y.

A native of New York City, Schick graduated from Stuyvesant High School, a specialized school for mathematics, science, and technology. He received his undergraduate degree in physics from Columbia University, where the two required years of humanities and social sciences “was a wonderful awakening. Whether you were interested in science or not, you had a very strong background in liberal arts.”

Schick even considered a career in sociology at the urging of noted sociologist C. Wright Mills. “That was fun, but I really liked the science best of all,” he says.

“Physics has a very rapidly changing scene, and what I like about it is that it gives me insight into the nature of things, and I find that very exciting.”

He received his Ph.D. from Rutgers in 1959 and began teaching at Union the same year.

Part of the fun he has had comes from the advances in technology, which have meant new questions and answers. Whenever he prepares a course, he gathers new information by searching the Web, talking to colleagues, and reading up on the latest research. He then shares what he finds — and his obvious enthusiasm about it — with his students.

Schick's own research has been in biophysics, investigating single nerve fibers in a frog and trying to understand how they work on a molecular basis. He has also done research with Jay Newman, R. Gordon Gould Professor of Physics, on actin, a molecule contained in muscles that is crucial for muscle contraction.

Cosmology has been an avocation that has filtered into his classrooms, especially in “Intelligent Life in the Universe,” a general education course aimed at non-science majors that examines the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. The course, he says, reflects his belief in the importance of sharing science with non-science majors, helping them realize that many scientific ideas are comprehensible. One of his most memorable classes, in fact, was a general education course called “VITA and the Developing World,” a collaboration with Volunteers for International Technical Assistance. Students completed projects designed to help people in third-world nations, such as a baby scale to help measure and monitor infant growth, a bicycle-powered electric generator to run a slide projector in villages that were not electrified, and a manual on the importance of keeping water supplies separate from waste.

Schick plans to return to campus on a regular basis to continue his discussions and arguments about cosmology and physics and to meet with colleagues to discuss current articles and ideas.