The Carnegie Mellon professor is teaching Mathematical Methods of Physics, an abstract, junior-senior level course not intended for the timid. In the middle of the lecture on poles and residues, and what may seem like a wild and impractical mathematical tangent, he sees a hand go up.
"What's this all good for?" asks a student. This isn't the first time the professor, Hugh Young, has heard this question-in fact, it could be the hundredth time. "I could go on and on about this, trying to answer your question," he says smiling, "but sometimes it's best to just shut up and eat your spinach. It's good for you."
Years later, Young receives an email from Supratik Moulik (S'99), thanking him. Now a physician in Philadelphia, Moulik uses what he learned in Young's class "almost on a daily basis," whether applying it to his research or lecturing to residents. "At some point or another in the past decade, I've referred back to either the book or the notes in his class, which I still keep," says Moulik.
He isn't alone. Physicists, engineers, CEOs, and musicians also have fondly remembered their physics professor. Young's wife, Alice, has meticulously chronicled the letters and emails-along with press clippings, brochures, awards, and accolades of all sorts. There's enough documentation for Alice to fully fill three, three-ring binders. Anyone given the chance to peruse them would discover not only a little bit about who the Youngs are, but also how much they've meant to the Carnegie Mellon community for more than five decades.
Since they first met while working at Carnegie Mellon-Hugh as a fledgling physics professor, Alice as the secretary to the head of the physics department-they have been directly involved in the lives of students and faculty.
From 1976-78, Alice was president of the Carnegie Women's Club, an organization founded in 1921 to serve as a campus social society. Today, the club is known as the Carnegie Mellon Women's Association and includes female faculty and staff from all across campus; but in the 1960s, members were mostly faculty members' wives. In addition to charitable volunteer work, the club organized parties and potluck dinners for faculty and staff. One of the regular affairs, often headed by Alice, was the bimonthly Cooking Club dinner. Faculty and staff and their spouses gathered at the homes of a member and cooked esoteric recipes from around the world.
That's not the only time the Youngs have invited campus guests to their Pittsburgh home. "Every year [for the past 50 years], Hugh goes into the freshman classes in the [Mellon College of Science] and invites them all for Thanksgiving dinner," says Alice. "Fortunately, they don't all come!" she adds with a smile.
The Youngs know that some students can't get home and have nowhere else to go on Thanksgiving, other than the school cafeteria. They've hosted as many as 40 students for turkey and pumpkin pie. Some years the meal is followed by Young playing the organ for the guests, much to the surprise of many freshmen who didn't expect their introductory physics professor to be an accomplished organist; in 1972 he earned a BA in organ performance from the university's College of Fine Arts.
Young knows what it's like to be far from home on a college campus. In 1948, he first arrived as a freshman at Carnegie Mellon (which was then Carnegie Tech). He was one of 10 students to receive the Westinghouse Scholarship, which paid for his undergraduate years. Without the scholarship, he says he would have stayed close to his hometown of Osage, Iowa, and probably gone to Iowa State University. His high school teachers advised him to head to the school Andrew Carnegie founded. He started studying chemistry but was turned on to physics his first year by a "hardcore" professor. "It was not a matter of finding applications for physical principles," explains Young.
"I was more interested in the principles themselves and how you could encapsulate so much understanding of the physical world in equations."
He earned his BS, MS, and PhD by 1959 and became a full professor at the university in 1977. Many of the students in his undergraduate physics courses, especially freshmen like Moulik, would remember their professor long after their college years. "Dr. Young is one of those people who treats you with more respect than you think you deserve, even as a freshman or sophomore," says Moulik.
Young seems to know how important it is for students to be encouraged and guided. Throughout the years, he has been actively involved in freshmen orientation programs, fraternities, and even a rock climbing group that he started on campus. Plus, his office door in Wean Hall has always been open for students to sit down and chat. But being a professor entails more than just teaching and guiding students. Most professors must "publish or perish," he says. For Young, that prompted him to write physics textbooks, including University Physics, which he now co-authors. It's one of the most widely used introductory textbooks in the country. Now in its 12th edition (1,632 pages, weighing 7.8 pounds), it's still used by physics professors at Carnegie Mellon.
As well received as his textbooks have been, his students agree that nothing compares to experiencing, in person, his excitement for physics. Young sums up his passion in this way; "There's a wonderful quote by an early 20th-century physicist, about physics being beautiful. 'The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful.'"
Even since his retirement five years ago, Young (who still has his Wean Hall office) hasn't lost his excitement and appreciation for physics, for undergraduate students, for Carnegie Mellon, or for the generosity he received along the way. He and his wife, Alice, recently contributed $100,000 to the Mellon College of Science that will go toward undergraduate scholarships.
Danielle Commisso (HS'06) is a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer. She is a regular contributor to this magazine.