Hugh D. Young: A Man of Many Talents-Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Hugh D. Young: A Man of Many Talents

As an undergraduate student at Carnegie Tech in 1948, Hugh Young saw the elegance and the beauty of physics. More than 50 years later, close to 10,000 Carnegie Mellon students have had the privilege of sitting in Young’s classroom to learn from a man who always goes the extra step to educate. Young, professor of physics, will retire at the end of 2004 after 52 years of teaching at Carnegie Mellon.

“Hugh Young has devoted his very best to the excellence of undergraduate education at Carnegie Mellon,” said Fred Gilman, the Buhl Professor of Theoretical Physics and head of the department of physics.

After graduating in 1952, Young remained at Carnegie Tech. He earned his master’s degree in physics in 1953 and his doctorate in 1959, with a thesis on the magnetic moment of the deuteron under the direction of the late Richard Cutkosky. During his early years of graduate school, he taught introductory physics courses. Later, he was given the unusual responsibility of teaching two advanced undergraduate courses, one a junior level mechanics lecture and the other a senior level electronics lab.

“I loved it,” remembered Young. “Teaching was a lot more fun than just research.”

From Teaching to Textbooks

The university has honored him twice for his contributions in and out of the classroom. In 1965, Young received the William H. and Frances S. Ryan Award for Meritorious Teaching and, in 1997, he garnered the Robert E. Doherty Award for Sustained Excellence in Education. In 1995, MCS renamed the award for graduate teaching the Hugh D. Young Graduate Student Teaching Award to recognize graduate students who make valuable contributions to teaching.

Aside from his reputation as a phenomenal physics instructor, Young also is a well-known author of several physics textbooks. He is best known for the “College Physics” and “University Physics” series. His first textbook, “Statistical Treatments of Experimental Data,” grew out of a class he taught on physical measurements.

“I felt I could write something better, clearer and more succinct for my students,” said Young. “To write a book, you have to have experience with teaching. In the classroom you find out what works and what doesn’t.”

In the mid-1990s, he began to investigate using computing methods to help students learn the underlying concepts of physical phenomena. As a result, Young designed a course, “Physical Analysis,” in which students employ computational methods to solve physics problems. Over his many years at MCS, Young has seen major changes in physics education, especially in the way people attack and solve problems.

“Much research has gone into how students build models in their minds and how they take unfocused situations and try to describe them rigorously,” explained Young.

By incorporating this research into his textbooks, Young’s publications were the first of their kind to devote entire sections to problem-solving strategies.

A Man of Many Talents

Physics isn’t Young’s only passion. Twenty years after his first bachelor’s degree, Young enrolled in the College of Fine Arts, where he earned a degree in musical performance. An enthusiastic organist, Young has played numerous organ recitals in Pittsburgh and was assistant organist at St. Paul’s Cathedral for four years.

“Music helps me clear my head,” said Young. “It is a direct and immediate means of self-expression that balances the sometimes delayed rewards of writing or teaching.”

In the early 1980s, Young combined his two interests and began teaching the now well-known course, “Physics of Musical Sound.” One of the first interdisciplinary courses at Carnegie Mellon, it includes students from many colleges who are interested in studying all aspects of music and sound, from the production of sound waves by instruments to how we hear and perceive sound.

While Young’s teaching and writing credentials have garnered him praise and awards, many of his students remember the broader lessons Young imparted to them.

“Three semesters of Hugh Young physics inspired many of us in the late 1970s. His deep concern for our learning combined with his own passion for learning and life in general led us to stretch much more ourselves,” said Rea Freeland, MCS associate dean.

“What I will miss most are the moments of enlightenment you see in a student, and the times when you help them out with more than just physics problems,” said Young.

During his retirement, Young plans to spend more time traveling by jeep in the desert canyon country of southern Utah, where he and his wife, Alice, take regular summer trips. Young also hopes to ski and to get in some “serious organ practicing.” But along the way, Young will be revising “College Physics,” which he has co-edited for more than 30 years.