Orange Alert

A Reflection on the Past and Our Impact on the Future

Posted on: Nov. 30, 2022

Al MacRae earned his PhD from Syracuse University in 1960 and went on to a promising career at Bell Labs. Peter Silvaggio graduated from Syracuse in 1969 and went on to earn his PhD at Cornell with Carl Sagan as his advisor. With names like Bell Labs and Sagan in mind, it may seem like the 60s were so distant that the world was a completely different place. Although that is true in a way, if one looks close enough, common threads will begin to emerge. Whether these threads be cultural or interpersonal or anywhere in between, they connect us to the past in surprising ways.

It is impossible to talk about the Physics Department’s past without talking about William Fredrickson. When he was hired at Syracuse University in 1928, there were four faculty in the department. After becoming chair in 1939, Fredrickson had to oversee the department during the war; this involved training and housing young soldiers sent to the university by the military. Fredrickson came out of the war with a mission to grow the department. He prepared a request to the NY State Department of Education for Syracuse University to be able to grant a PhD in Physics, and it was given in 1946. The first PhD student graduated in 1950. By the time Frederickson stepped down in 1964, over 100 PhDs had been awarded and there were twenty-four faculty in the department.

But his work ethic and diligence are not how MacRae remembers Frederickson. Instead, MacRae remembers a faculty leader who was inviting and kind-hearted, who fostered a welcoming academic environment where ideas and not people were challenged. It was in this environment that Silvaggio was approached by Fredrickson with a flier for a summer space physics program with NASA. Through that program, Silvaggio was inspired to pursue his PhD and career in astrophysics. One thoughtful moment from Frederickson forever altered the course of Silvaggio’s entire life, and who knows how many lives Silvaggio similarly impacted? The Butterfly Effect of such an inconspicuous action is felt for generations.

Jay Zemel, another graduate student who graduated from SU in 1956 with his PhD, remembers Frederickson as the bedrock of the department culture. “...what has always been a blessing to me is that I knew and experienced the remarkable character of the man. I could carry on about my own personal reasons for appreciating him but as I have told you often, he played a key and central role in enabling me to enter graduate school to get my PhD which launched the life I have and have had.”

With the above in mind, it is not difficult to see how the department of the past lives on today. MacRae shares fond stories of Thursday afternoon colloquia with pastries and graduate student barbeques and parties. To this very day the department still has a colloquium every Thursday, and you can always find department members there looking for a free cookie or brownie. It is also little surprise to learn that the graduate students are still fond of social events today; there was even a three-year running tradition of meeting at the Inn Complete, a graduate student bar on South Campus, for trivia every Thursday night before the pandemic shut down the venue.

The similarities do not stop there. MacRae recounts stories of how the lab he worked in at Syracuse, Levinstein’s Lab, was located underneath the metal stands on the northside of Archibold Stadium. He remembers attending sporting events with friends and mentors in the department, and even of gaining notoriety as the “ghost of Archibold Stadium,” by the Daily Orange school newspaper; he enjoyed practicing the bagpipes in the stadium at night after work. Although there are not any known bagpipe aficionados in the department today, the Carrier Dome is still frequented by students and faculty of the department. The proximity makes the fun easy but makes taking data from sensitive experiments on the busy weekends difficult; a problem faced by Levinstein then and experimental faculty now. Or rather if not faced by them, then perhaps by their graduate students…

But the most striking similarity between past and present lies in the character and goals of the chair. Professor Frederickson wanted everyone to feel welcome and valued in the department, a goal shared wholeheartedly by the current chair Professor Jenny Ross. She has focused on expanding the diversity of the department, in both faculty and students, and on creating an environment welcoming to the widest net of people. She along with other faculty helped start the Equity, Inclusivity, and Diversity organization in the department. Ross was even the first faculty advisor for the Physics Graduate Organization that was started by students in the department in 2019, a group whose goals are to build community and camaraderie amongst the graduate students. There have also been a number of faculty hires since Ross became chair, expanding the department as Frederickson did. These are just a few of the many official ways she has worked to make the department more welcoming, which does not account for Ross’ warmth and respect displayed to all members of the department, whether they be student or faculty.

One last legacy left behind by Frederickson lies in the building currently occupied by the Physics Department. While other buildings on campus have names such as Steele Hall, Maxwell, Falk, or Crouse, the Physics Department is housed in the Physics Building. For those readers who may not have been on campus recently, this is not a joke nor is it a nickname. The official name of the building is Physics Building. When this building was being built, there was a push to name it Frederickson Hall to honor the person who did so much to build the character and prestige of the department. Frederickson would have none of it and refused to have his name on the building. Rather than name it after someone else, the building was simply named the Physics Building.

This plainly named building is where the common thread from the past continues into the future. Who knows how the commonplace interactions between professionals and students will change the world? Conversations turn into research projects which turn into new career opportunities. Students go to colloquia, conferences, and summer programs at the behest of the faculty around them where they meet hundreds of new people; these become relationships, both professional and personal. Although it may seem like our individual actions in this department are insignificant, we are all an integral part of a chain that stretches back a hundred years; the chain might change color or shape, but it will never break.

Physics alumn Al MacRae (’54, G’57, ’60 PhD) takes us down memory lane by sharing a few of his memories in the articles below: