Remembering Hugh D. Young

Many readers of Science Blog will recognize the name Hugh D. Young from the textbooks he wrote. I was lucky enough to know him as a professor and friend.

He left us as the age of 82 on Tuesday, August 20, 2013. His official obituary is here. I won’t repeat its details. Instead, I will share a few personal thoughts.

When Hugh retired in 2004, I was one of a small number of past students who were able to present a brief remembrance. Here is what I have on my computer from that ceremony. I’ll follow it with additional thoughts that I would not have included at that ceremony.

The request was simple: “We’re making a video for Hugh Young’s retirement tribute. Would you say a few words about him?”

“I’d be honored,” I replied. Then I realized what I had committed myself to: a few words.

As a writer, I know how hard it is to be concise. I know how important it is to distinguish my remarks from others. I know how essential it is to know my audience and connect with them. And I know it wouldn’t hurt to leave them with a smile.

We all know that Hugh Young is a great teacher, and I’ll include a few words about that. But because my career path has taken me from the practice of physics to writing about it and about other sciences, I want to focus on Hugh Young the writer and the influence his books have had on me.

Not every good teacher writes well, and not every good writer can teach. But they share some important common traits. Every student who has had the experience of a course with Dr. Young knows that this professor loves his subject. He prepares each lecture and demonstration with thorough attention to detail. At the heart of each is a question, because that is the way physics reveals the universe.

But good teaching is more than academic. Hugh’s students know that he is personally concerned about every one of them. Even in a 200-seat lecture hall, every bleary-eyed undergraduate pays rapt attention. They have to do their best in his class. They can’t disappoint Dr. Young.

Hugh Young’s books convey both enthusiasm for his subject matter and concern for the students who grapple with it. Most of you know him for his work on the massive Sears, Zemansky, and Young University Physics text. But I remember three earlier works that I encountered as an undergraduate, a graduate assistant, and a young professor.

I still have all three. The two hardcover texts — Fundamentals of Mechanics and Heat and Fundamentals of Optics and Modern Physics — are models of clarity. They provide detail without overwhelming the students, and they never fail to hold the reader’s interest. I am sure their approach was influential in my own writing about an important and complex subject, Materials Science and Engineering, for a somewhat younger readership.

The result was Techno-Matter, for which I won the 2002 American Institute of Physics Science Writing Award for works intended for young readers. The award not only included a cash prize but also an inscribed Windsor chair similar to one that might come with an endowed professorship. It is clearly so special that some visitors to my home ask permission to sit in it, but Hugh would be welcome to plop his posterior there without asking.

The paperback Statistical Treatment of Experimental Data was the text for Dr. Young’s sophomore course in Physical Measurements. Before that course, I treated measurements as numbers to be put into formulas. Afterwards, I realized that measurements provide an imperfect perspective on the physical universe, but it is the only perspective we can have.

That is something that fourth graders can appreciate on their own level, and so I begin my one and only project book, Dr. Fred’s Weather Watch, with a section on measurements and what they mean.

The illustrator and I used a bug-eyed space alien to help me get the point across. If I ever revise the book, I’ll ask the artist to give the alien a buzz haircut, a long face, owlish glasses, a prominent Adam’s apple, and a great Hugh Young smile.

Thanks, Hugh, for everything!

Thinking about Hugh’s life would not be complete without the legends that swirled around the Carnegie Tech campus when I was a student there and Hugh was an age 30-something professor. Apparently, he was a straight-A undergraduate student who belonged to a fraternity sometimes known for its outrageousness. And the undergraduate Hugh was known for his writing with a distinctive brand of humor. Though I never saw a copy of the alleged document, I heard that the fraternity had the original copy of “Hugh Young’s Dirty Ditties.”

The only excerpt I recall was called “The Night of the King’s Castration.” It began, if memory serves, “It was the Night of the King’s Castration. The Royal Ball was about to come off.” He described those in attendance at the event, including “Counts, Viscounts, and No-Accounts.” And I am sure the story had much better–and much bawdier–material.

But we also knew that our very bright and very personable professor also had a soft spot in his heart for many people, most especially his wife, who survives him. I’ll never forget the dedication of one of his books, “To Alice, who shares her Wonderland with me.” Perhaps that is why I strive to write meaningful dedications in my own books.

Perhaps I should dedicate my next one in his memory.