Getting to know Professor Cook

Kayla Wilson

Very few people can claim to have spent their entire professional lives holding the same position. Even fewer can claim to have enjoyed doing so. One of those lucky few is Professor David Cook, Lawrence physics professor since 1965.
While finishing his PhD at Harvard, he ruled out that and other similar institutions: “I knew I did not want to be involved in the research mill at a major university.” He added that he was “turned off by the attitudes toward scholarship and the secretiveness” of research universities.About a year and a half before the time he would be ready to take a teaching position, Cook filled out the forms for the Harvard Placement Office, just to get them done, and informing the person he gave the forms to just to hold them, as he was not ready to make any commitments yet.

However, a short time after this, this same office worker, a good friend of Lawrence’s then-Dean of Faculty, discovered that Lawrence would be needing a physics professor just as Professor Cook would be able to accept such a position. He interviewed and has been here ever since. “People get along here,” he said, “It is a challenging and supportive environment.”

While on sabbatical from 1971-72, he spent time at Dartmouth, where he observed their use of time-shared computing in a physics curriculum. “I was enthralled with the potential for teaching,” he said.

Since then he has striven to incorporate computers into the curriculum at Lawrence, building the Lawrence Computational Physics Laboratory. “I am rather proud of the program,” he said.

Professor Cook has also written two textbooks about computational physics. The first, entitled “The Theory of the Electromagnetic Field”, was published in 1975 and went out of print in the late 1980s. Dover Publications then reprinted the book in 2003. Of being reprinted by this publishing house Cook said, “In some measure I’ve joined the elite.”

Also in 2003, Cook published “Computation and Problem Solving in Undergraduate Physics”. Because no two institutions use the same operating systems or programs, he revises this book with every publication and because of this he publishes it himself.

He sells to 15-20 schools regularly and each wants a different version. However, he is still looking for a publisher, one that can give him more exposure. “You don’t write physics textbooks with the expectation of being a millionaire,” he said.

Outside of computers, Professor Cook enjoys music. He has played the organ since 1951 and has played in churches since high school, a job that he continues to this day. “Music has helped me retain my sanity,” he said, “I would practice just to clear my head and forget the stress of taking graduate physics.”

In addition, when he has spare time he reads music — “Organ pieces, Bach especially.” His love of music spawned his Physics of Music course, a favorite of his. He does read novels however, citing murder mysteries by Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle. “I’m not much of a movie-goer. My favorite movies are ‘North by Northwest’ and ‘Mary Poppins.'”

Professor Cook, who has been on a two-year retirement plan, will officially retire in June of 2008. After retirement he will still retain University affiliation and continue to have an office on campus.