From the Headmaster

Spring 2017

Building a physics lab at Commonwealth is not a straightforward, simple matter. Aside from the physical challenge of putting an up-to-date facility in our nineteenth-century brownstone, there is a question of history and tradition.

Some years back, the Director of Admissions at an area university asked me if we had built a physics lab yet. When I said “No,” she replied, “Good. I still tell people that Commonwealth is the best place in Boston to learn physics.” For the most part, what we used to call “blackboard physics” worked brilliantly; fiddling around with a wave tank seemed like a waste of time when a few small pieces of equipment for the occasional demonstration and a blackboard were more than enough to drive the idea of angular momentum home to a class of motivated students.

Indeed, Commonwealth has turned out a steady stream of students who have gone on to careers in physics. And the College Board twice recognized the School as having the highest percentage of its student body (worldwide) pass the calculus-based AP Physics C Mechanics exam. Despite this, the Board refused to allow us to designate the Physics 1 course that prepared Commonwealthers for that test as “Advanced Placement” ™ on our transcripts because it did not include a laboratory component. (The irony of this situation was not lost on the College Board representative with whom I discussed this matter, but the policy prevailed. That organization stopped recognizing distinctive programs shortly thereafter.)

Our lack of a lab also reflected a bias Commonwealth teachers used to hold favoring the beauty of the theoretical over the hands-on and practical. Formulas and proofs were elegant; applications were messy. (Our elective in structural engineering and fledgling robotics team would have some of our retired scientists and mathematicians groaning that we are betraying our intellectual commitments.)

We’ve come to realize, however, that this bias is misguided. At a recent assembly, we hosted Tufts mathematician Moon Duchin, who spoke of her research on topology and geometric group theory and of the incredible beauty of the rings, saddles, and other pure forms she explores as part of her work. But her talk primarily focused on a particular issue, the concept of geometric compactness, which, it turns out, has consequential applications to the question of gerrymandered voting districts. In cases challenging convoluted House districts skewed to the political advantage of the majority party or the dilution of minority voices, compactness has emerged as a legally significant factor in the courts. (Google “packing and cracking” for a better idea of the practices being targeted.)

Working with a number of colleagues, Prof. Duchin has developed techniques for measuring and assessing the compactness of districts, and she is organizing workshops around the country to train lawyers, mathematicians, and others in these techniques with the aim of strengthening the legal challenges to the various forms of gerrymandering that have contributed to our political paralysis. Political districting is a messy, complicated affair, but Prof. Duchin’s marrying of pure math with politics made for a mesmerizing presentation, and her example offers a bracing rebuke to the false choices—in this case between theory and practice—we too casually accept.

This summer, thanks to a generous matching gift from the Edward E. Ford Foundation, we’re transforming a fourth-floor classroom into a physics lab (the highlight of Phase III of a three-year renovation of our buildings). Soon, students who grasp the mysterious elegance of formulas describing the behavior of light or the dynamics of waves will be able to see them play out in our laser booth. And the students for whom “blackboard physics” is not the swiftest path to understanding will have new tools to help them appreciate the beauty of the laws of physics. We will marry the pure and the practical, and so better fulfill our mission of helping young people become adults capable of deep understanding and careful, creative response.

And when next asked by that Director of Admissions if we’ve built a physics lab at Commonwealth, I’ll answer, “Yes, and it’s now an even better place to learn physics.”