December 2022: Gary White

The George Washington University, Washington, D.C.

Gary White

  • Member since 1993
  • Adjunct Professor of Physics and Editor of The Physics Teacher
  • Washington, D.C.

About Gary

Physics was not the first thing to come to my mind when I was thinking about college in the mid-1970s; I had not taken any physics in high school (it was not offered in the years that I was there). I remember specifically asking the college advisor if I could major in “science” (who was quite amused by the naivete of my query). “No, son, you have to pick a specific science.” I asked which science would give me the best chance to look through the telescope I had seen on top of one of the buildings there, which led me to physics. (I never did get to look through that telescope, though, sadly!) 

Now, I come from a family of teachers (I once counted, and among dozens of relatives that I could think of, about half were involved in public education in some way or another). Still, I remember emphatically claiming that I “was never going to be a teacher” whenever anyone asked me what I was going to do when I graduated. I was thinking government scientist, lab researcher, or maybe even an astronaut on my more ambitious days. I did get a taste of some of the joys of teaching as a tutor in my college days. Still, when I finally finished grad school, I remember being offered a research postdoc in Europe that I was excited about and intended to take, so teaching was far from my mindset. However, that same week, a notice was posted on the job board about a physics position at a small state college near my hometown. My brother was getting married there that next weekend, so since I was going to be nearby, I would try to get an interview for that job while I was there. The interview lasted all morning, and I was lured in by the possibilities: I would be close to home and could keep up my research in the summers; I would be teaching “modern physics for teachers” and introductory physics and astronomy (there was an observatory!); how could I resist? It turned out I was replacing the only physicist on campus; I didn’t realize what autonomy that would mean that I would have.

I remember walking through the campus library at that first job one day and noticing a few journals on the display shelves that really spoke to me: The Physics Teacher and The American Journal of Physics. I wanted to get these publications to come to my desk each month, and I quickly discovered that the way to do that was to join this organization called AAPT. These were my people!

Without getting emotional, it is hard for me to describe the immense impact that membership in AAPT has had on my career. The mentoring I have received, the opportunities for collaboration, the friendships and personal relationships developed, and the chances for me to make whatever small contributions I can muster to the field all speak to the necessity of this organization in my life. This is my professional family in every sense of the word.

My students and I like to study how marbles and coins roll on curved spandex surfaces and how unfair dice land when rolled on flat, non-spandex surfaces. Most recently, I have been working with Dr. Tiffany Sikorski to better understand how and how to motivate students to check their answers.

There was a rare moment in class when I went out on a limb and risked asking the class a question to which I didn’t know the answer. They figured out that I didn’t know the answer, and we all knowingly became collaborating scientists as we pursued the answer to one of nature’s secrets together, with abandon…that’s a good day.