Wednesday afternoon I joined a delegation of Chinese journalists, including the China News Service and People’s Daily, visiting UC Davis as they met with faculty and students of the Physics Department. Earlier, the group had lunch with Winston Ko, dean of mathematical and physical sciences, and met with Chancellor Linda Katehi.
Why are the Chinese media interested in UC Davis Physics? Apart from the growing scientific collaborations and flow of international students, there is an interesting little tale that links the Chinese leadership and the campus.
Milton Gardner was one of the original three faculty members of the UC Davis Department of Physics when it was formed in 1953. Gardner was born in China, where his parents were missionaries, and spent the first years of his life there before moving back to the U.S. in 1911. Towards the end of his life, he often spoke of the village where he was born, “Guling” but was never able to return there. Gardner’s widow, Elizabeth tried to fulfill his wish by visiting the village, but was not able to find it.
A Chinese student who had lodged with the Gardners identified the village as being near Fuzhou in Fujian province. He wrote an article on the story that was published in the People’s Daily. The story caught the eye of the party chief of Fuzhou, Xi Jinping, who arranged for Elizabeth Gardner to finally visit Guling in 1992 and meet childhood friends of her late husband.
Xi Jinping went on to rise through the Chinese leadership. In February last year, as Vice President of the People’s Republic, he visited the U.S. where he recounted the story. In November 2012, Xi became General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and is expected to succeed Hu Jintao as President this year.
Professor emeritus Joe Kiskis told the delegation some anecdotes about Gardner as a teacher. Kiskis took Gardner’s introductory physics class as an undergraduate at UC Davis in the 1960s. The professor was fond of setting “fiendishly difficult” pulley problems that challenged students to grasp fundamental concepts, Kiskis recalled, and was exacting in how students wrote up and presented their work.
Most of the class was made up of engineering majors rather than physics undergraduates, Kiskis went on. Gardner would tease the engineers, claiming that the engineers “just wanted a formula so they could turn a handle and get a result.”
On his retirement in 1968, the Society of Engineering Students presented Gardner with a slide rule, equipped with hand crank, mounted on a plaque declaring Gardner an “honorary engineer.”