As a longtime physics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and director of the Molecular Beam Lab, John G. King wanted students, and essentially everyone else, to watch science unfold before their eyes. It was, he believed, the only way to truly learn a subject.
“Looking at our built world, most physicists see order where many others see magic,” he said in an acceptance speech when the American Association of Physics Teachers awarded him the Oersted Medal in 2000. “This view of order should be available to all.”
Despite the advances in teaching physics during the previous 50 years, he added, “too many people, whether they’ve had physics courses or not, don’t have an inkling of the power and value of our subject, whose importance ranges from the practical to the psychological. We need to supplement people’s experiences in ways that are applicable to different groups, from physics majors to people without formal education.”
He did that by overhauling undergraduate labs at MIT, instituting interactive wall displays in hallways, and helping to create the PSSC Physics program for high schools.
Dr. King, whose research contributed to the development of the atomic clock, and who also invented a molecular microscope, died of congestive heart failure June 15 at his summer home in Wellfleet. He was 88 and lived in Cambridge.
“When I reached a certain level of authority and was in charge of all undergraduate labs at MIT in the physics department, I did something,” he said in an oral history interview conducted by George O. Zimmerman at Boston University in 2009 for the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Md. “I decided that the freshman labs and sophomore labs were doing more harm than good.”
In the mid-1960s, Dr. King created the Project Lab, in which students conducted experiments of their own choosing. “You could take any number of innocent situations and find complicated and interesting things that could be a life work,” he said in the oral history. “For instance, people did experiments on the tearing of paper, the characteristic sound, the effect of the grain and fiber size, humidity.”
During the years the Project Lab ran, more than 2,000 students participated. Rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, he said, “when the students enrolled for this Project Lab they were asked, ‘What are your interests? What hobbies do you have? What sports do you like? Do you play a musical instrument?’ And unless they chose partners on their own, I would put them together in partnerships with a common interest.”
Dr. King, who was the Francis L. Friedman professor of physics emeritus, founded the Corridor Lab several years after creating the Project Lab. While it never became as extensive as he envisioned, it includes a variety of interactive wall displays that demonstrate scientific phenomena for those who stop while walking along the hallways in MIT’s Edgerton Center. “Eventually I wanted the many miles of halls at MIT to have 100 showcases,” he said in the oral history.
In 2007, Dr. King shared the American Physical Society’s first excellence in physics education award for his work as part of the Physical Science Study Committee to create the PSSC Physics program for high schools. Over the years, he made several educational physics movies, including three for the PSSC program.
He received an E. Harris Harbison Award in 1971 for gifted teaching, for creating a concentrated program at MIT in which students studied a single subject for an extended period of time. In 1965, the American Association of Physics Teachers awarded him the Robert A Millikan Medal for intellectually creative contributions to teaching physics.
“He thought the way that people learn about science is by seeing phenomena, not by going to a lecture and seeing someone write on a chalkboard or draw graphs,” said Rainer Weiss, a physics professor emeritus at MIT. “People would not understand phenomena unless they see it themselves — see it in front of them. He wanted to make sure people experienced what science was saying.”
Along with his work as an educator, Dr. King “was probably one of the most imaginative and creative experimental physicists of his generation,” Weiss said.
John Gordon King was born in London. His parents divorced when he was a toddler. His mother, a US citizen, remarried, and Dr. King said he inherited his affection for tinkering from his French stepfather, who was interested in automobiles.
Dr. King attended schools in France, Switzerland, and the United States, becoming fluent in English, French, and German before graduating from Phillips Exeter Academy in 1943. He worked at the Harvard Underwater Sound Laboratory before being drafted during World War II. He was assigned to the Army and then to the Navy before being sent back to the underwater sound lab.
He enrolled as a freshman in 1946 at MIT, where he received a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate and remained as a professor until retiring 50 years later.
Dr. King’s first marriage ended in divorce.
In 2001 he married Jane Williams, with whom he had been a couple for many years, joking afterward that as “a good Irish boy” he’d had a 17-year engagement.
“He was incredibly ingenious as a scientist, but he also was just as ingenious as a domestic person,” she said. “We had all kinds of things at home that worked because John made them work.”
Dr. King also was “passionate about classical music, about poetry, and about language. Dictionaries were a big thing in his life,” she said, adding that he kept a dictionary in every room of the house, some in French and German. “He went to the dictionary all the time. If somebody wanted to know about a word, or if a child asked a question, he would take them to the dictionary.”
A service will be announced for Dr. King, who in addition to his wife leaves six sons, Andrew of Ann Arbor, Mich., James, Benjamin, and Matthew of Woolwich, Maine, Charles of Georgetown, Maine, and David of Amherst; a daughter, Martha of Santa Barbara, Calif.; two stepdaughters, Cynthia Watkins of New York City and Katy Cushman of Fayetteville, Ark.; two stepsons, David Cushman of Rio Rancho, N.M., and Nicholas Watkins of Wellfleet; three granddaughters; and eight step-grandchildren.
Dr. King also was a mentor who took time to listen to ideas students and colleagues offered, “and then he would become a participant immediately,” said Weiss, who added that his colleague would pull scraps of paper from his pockets to sketch out plans and details.
Offering such enthusiastic guidance was a way of making up for its absence earlier in his life, Dr. King suggested in the oral history.
“I don’t consider myself of great intellectual power compared to some people I know,” he told Zimmerman.
Dr. King said he believed he could have used his skills to accomplish more, “and many of us can say that, and that’s the matter of the right mentor. And it’s very analogous to some kid who shows talent in basketball, and he may never go anywhere. But if he has the right position, the right coach, then he can move.”
Bryan Marquard can be reached at email@example.com.