Clifford M. Will

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Clifford M. Will is Professor of Physics and chair of the Physics Department, and member of the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Born in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1946, he received a Ph.D. in Physics from the California Institute of Technology in 1971. He was Enrico Fermi Fellow at the University of Chicago (1972-74), and an Assistant Professor of Physics at Stanford University (1974-81), before joining Washington University as Associate Professor. From 1975 to 1979, he was an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow.

In 1986 Will was selected by the American Association of Physics Teachers to be the 46th annual Richmyer Memorial Lecturer. He has published over 140 scientific articles or abstracts, including eight major review articles, 12 popular or semi-popular articles and two books, Theory and Experiment in Gravitational Physics (Cambridge University Press, 1981, 2nd edition,1983) and a popular book, Was Einstein Right? (Basic Books, 1986, 2nd edition, 1993) which won the 1987 American Institute of Physics Science-Writing Award in Physics and Astronomy. His research interests include tests of general relativity, gravitational radiation, black holes, cosmology, and the physics of curved space-time.


Introductory Comments: General Relativity

When confronted with the subject of putting general relativity into the high school and introductory college physics curriculum, one immediately asks, Why? Why try to talk about general relativity in high school?

I would like to offer three reasons. First, even though general relativity is an old subject --Einstein invented the theory in the late fall of 1915 --it experienced a remarkable renaissance beginning around 1960 that has made it one of the most active branches of physics.

The second reason why one can talk about general relativity in elementary physics classes is, it's fun, it's neat, it's fascinating. One aspect of general relativity, the quest for experimental verification of the theory, is especially suitable because it covers a wide variety of issues that can be understood at the elementary level. There is a little bit of theory, a taste of geometry, a dash of relativity, a helping of gravity. Furthermore, one can do some simple laboratory experiments in this field. One can talk about other experiments that clearly can't be done in the laboratory but that involve spacecraft and the space program, a subject that always interests students. Finally, there is some astronomy in this topic, and astronomy is very interesting to young people.

Thirdly, and I think most importantly, the subject illustrates the scientific method. This is something that I think is lacking in high school physics and elementary college physics. The issue is, how do we determine whether or not a theory of nature is correct or viable? In high school, one is typically handed Newton's laws as if they were brought down by Moses along with the tablets. One never really discusses whether or not Newtonian theory is correct. In the case of testing general relativity, one can see how a theory is produced, how it is tested, how one judges whether or not it is viable. For these reasons, I think that this is an appropriate subject for this level of physics student.