Friday, February 28, 2014

David Carr Baird


I was talking to David and Margaret, his wife, a few days ago.  Now both in their eighties, they are currently helping a poor neighborhood forestall the building of a cell phone tower too close to a low income residence.  When I visited them last year, they were more than busy working to preserve the beautiful traditional architecture of Kingston, Ontario.  They have many friends, a number of whom are current and former faculty members of both the Royal Military College and Queen's University, including Agnes Hertzberg.

David is the former head of the Physics Department of the Royal Military College of Canada (RMC) where I obtained my first undergraduate degree (Honours Math and Physics).  He was my professor for a first year lab in experimentation.  He also taught me in a class on quantum and statistical physics.  So, about the picture.  David loved to use natural phenomena to teach his classes.  My first exposure to Young's Double Slit Experiment was with David putting up photos showing the interference of waves on Lake Ontario.  He had managed to find a spot where a river (the Cataraqui) interacted with "The Lake", resulting in a beautiful demonstration of double slit induced constructive and destructive interference.  The above photo approximates the delicious pictures that David used to introduce this concept.

I also clearly remember David introducing Fourier series and Gibb's phenonoma toward the construction of a square wave.  Another favorite was the visual representation of the sinc function and the squared sinc function.  He had an artistic flair in the presentation in his classes, a genuine warmth and a great sense of humor.  He was also a very rigorous scientist.  I never really understood just how rigorous until many years later.  I just remember really getting nailed when I had missed some concept like not getting the proper calculation of uncertainty.  There was a gravity to it.

Recently, David wrote a book on the history of RMC.  I'm currently reading it.  The book has some surprises such as these:

"At a time when personal contact between east and west was carefully supervised and rare, three prominent Russian physicists were authorized to make a closely monitored visit to Toronto to attend the 1960 International Conference on Low Temperature Physics.  They were B.N. Samoilov, V.P. Peshkov, celebrated as the discoverer in 1944 of second sound in liquid helium II, and B.I.Verkin after whom the low termperature laboratory of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine was named as the B. Verkin Institute for Low Temperature Physics and Engineering."  David and another professor hosted them in Kingston and even drove them to the Thousand Islands Bridge "so they could, at least, look across the international border at their Cold War adversary."

"The French-language teaching in the Physics Department had actually started in 1974.  Mukherjee, who since 1969 had been a Research Associate with Wiederick and Baird, was the only department member fluent in French (his early education in India had taken place in Pondicherry where the European language was French), and in the 1974-75 academic year he taught in French the entire set of Third Year physics courses in the Engineering Physics program - no mean feat for one's debut in professional duties."  [Mukherjee and Wiederick would eventually together focus their research on the characterization of dielectric and piezoelectric properties of materials.] [With extensive hiring from 1975 to 1977, the extension of French language teaching in the Physics Department to all four years was accomplished by 1977.]

David's official bio reads as follows:

David Carr Baird was born in Edinburgh where he attended George Watson's Boys' College and the University of Edinburgh.  His early interests included music, astronomy, researching historical sites for the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, archaeological excavations, and mountain climbing.  While studying for his Ph.D. at St. Andrews University, he developed a lifelong love of flying while flying Tiger Moths as a member of the RAFVR Air Squadron at Leuchars.

In 1952 he joined the Physics Department at RMC to continue his research in superconductivity, and to participate actively in the development of physics curriculum at all levels from elementary to post-secondary.  He is the author of several physics texts that include Experimentation which has been in print since 1962.

Following his term as Head of the Department, he was appointed Dean of Science during a period of considerable change from 1980 to 1990.  During this decade the introduction of Space Science resulted in the creation of new research areas and educational programs.  In 1981 he became Director of an interdisciplinary team which constructed the first model in Canada of a superconducting motor for ship propulsion.

His early interest in archaeology was renewed when he undertook research as Visiting Scientist at the Laboratory for Archaeological Science and the History of Art at Oxford University (1980-95).

He encouraged his children [and his students] to follow their individual interests.


Update (March 1st):

Papers of B.N. Samoilov

Papers of V. P. Peshkov

Biography of B. Verkin

B. Verkin Institute for Low Temperature Physics and Engineering of the National Academy of Sciences of the Ukraine

Papers of B.K. Mukherjee

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