Staff Spotlight — Frank Winkler

By Middlebury Campus

As I arrived at Gamaliel Painter Bicentennial Professor of Physics Frank Winkler’s office, the nameplate on his door informed me that I was visiting the “Astrologer and Chief Wizard.”

“That goes back to a story run in The Campus from many, many years ago,” he said, laughing. “A student incorrectly cited me as being the informal head of Middlebury’s Astrology Department, and the nameplate is a joke from that.”

Photo by Daisy Zhou, Photos Editor

Sitting down in a chair next to Winkler, I asked how he ended up at Middlebury.

In 1969, his thesis advisor at Harvard, Norman Ramsey, had a daughter who was studying at Middlebury. Ramsey was on a sabbatical in Ripton, Vt. and he happened to discover that Middlebury was looking for a new physics professor. Ramsey called his secretary and instructed her to post a note in the lab informing students of the opening. Professor Winkler saw the ad and applied for the job.

Forty-one years later, he’s still here.

“Last year, we went through the process of hiring a new professor in the physics department. There were over 250 applicants,” he said. “I’m glad I got hired when I did, because I’m not so sure I’d still get the job now.”

When I asked how teaching at Middlebury today differs from teaching at Middlebury in the 1970s, Winkler began to smile.

“Middlebury students were excellent when I began here, and they’re excellent today,” he said. “Maybe over time the average student has gotten better, but there have always been excellent students.”

He cited other changes in the student populatoin as well.

“The student body has gotten much more international, and it’s the better for it. Also, students now come in with much more scientific background than before,” Winkler said. “I think that’s due to things like AP.”

Although most of the changes he has seen in the student body have been welcome, there have been some less-positive ones as well.

“On the downside, students have much shorter attention spans,” he said. “Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail are all vying for attention. It’s harder to concentrate on reading a text or working on analysis. It comes less naturally now.”

Winkler teaches two classes each fall, Physics 155 and Physics 165. Both of these courses are astronomy courses. As he’s currently on associate status, he doesn’t teach during spring terms.
Although the Physics Department at Middlebury does not stress astronomy, Winkler seems satisfied.

“Both Steve [Professor of Physics Steve Ratcliff] and I do research on astronomy,” he said. “We could productively have a larger department, but we all have the ability to teach a wide variety of courses. I think this is a good thing.”

In fact, when Winkler began at Middlebury, he didn’t teach astronomy courses. He taught physics until three or four years after he arrived.

As we spoke, my eyes wandered over to an arrangement of flowers sitting in a vase on his desk. Noticing that I was looking at it, he explained.

“It was for a demonstration today,” he began. “I don’t generally have flowers just sitting on my desk.”

The morning I spoke with Professor Winkler, he had done an in-class demonstration in which he pulled a tablecloth off of a fully-set table with a vase of flowers — lit candles and all. This is his favorite demonstration.

“I love the drama of it,” he said.

In addition to this demonstration, he also rides a rocket wagon across the Great Hall in one of his astronomy classes. While he says that these demonstrations are always done with an academic lesson in mind, he also admits that they are simply a lot of fun to do.

“I love to teach here,” he said. “I love my subject.”

Winkler went on to describe how the combination of teaching at Middlebury and having the ability to do international research have kept him happy here. He enjoys the relationships he’s been able to develop with professors in other departments.

“Cross-departmental interaction is not typical of big research universities,” he said.

Additionally, Winkler has enjoyed the flexibility to travel to U.S. national observatories, including ones in Kitpeak, just outside of Tucson, Ariz. and one in Chile. In the past 20 years, he estimates that he has visited one at least once a year.

During his sabbaticals from Middlebury, he has twice spent six-month periods in Chile at the observatory.

While he loves it here, Winkler admitted that he plans to retire in May of 2013.

“I will definitely miss grading the least,” he said.

In all seriousness, though, Winkler said that he will miss the stimulation of walking into a new class at the beginning of a term.

“You never know what to expect,” he said. “This is why my job is fun.”

When asked if he finds philosophy in astronomy, Winkler began:

“Absolutely. Day one of my class, I tell my students that one of the goals of the course is to put the students and myself in touch with our natural environment. It’s like standing on the Acropolis. You can feel that these are places that are special. [astronomy] is an experience that is special. Being in the dark and just paying attention. We can get lost in our modern environment.”

After a moment’s pause, he continued.

“The universe is so immense. It gives you perspective when you think of how infinitesimally small we are. It’s good perspective.”