June 12, 1997
Vol. 16, No. 19

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    Graduate Teaching Award: Robert Wald

    Professor in Physics Robert Wald, Professor in Physics, is modest about his teaching. "I don't try to do very much that is obviously flashy. I try to focus on the fundamentals of the material," he said. "I very much enjoy trying to get a complete grasp of the subject I'm trying to teach so that I can present it in a clear, consistent and thorough way."

    It is that very thoroughness and clarity that his students most admire. In support of Wald's nomination for the Faculty Teaching Award, one student wrote, "He begins each subject from the ground up, redefining all of the fundamental objects in their most precise and general form, and revisits all of the familiar ideas, carefully explaining all of the subtle underpinnings that were so elusive in our undergraduate classes."

    The letter continues, "He rarely uses a textbook, a practice that would surely generate complaints from the students were it not for the fact that his lecture notes, which he meticulously copies to the blackboard during class time, provide a comprehensive exposition of the subject which is markedly superior in both clarity and precision to the existing textbooks in the field."

    A Chicago faculty member since 1976, Wald has taught nearly every fundamental first-year graduate physics course offered by the department, ranging from classical, quantum and statistical mechanics to electricity and magnetism. In addition, he teaches introductory and advanced courses in his specialty, general relativity. For four years running, he has been ranked as one of the best first-year instructors in the department and consistently garners high evaluations from students.

    Not coincidentally, he is the author of the standard graduate text in relativity, General Relativity (1984). He is also the author of Space, Time and Gravity (1977), based on the Compton Lectures he presented in 1976, and Quantum Field Theory in Curved Spacetime and Black Hole Thermodynamics, an advanced textbook for specialists in the field.

    His research centers on the thermodynamics of black holes. A theorist, his research tools are primarily pencil and paper -- a computer languishes in the corner of his office, relegated to use only for e-mail. "It has been extremely rare in my career that I've ever wanted to or needed to do numerical calculations," he said. "Most of the things I am interested in are fairly broad theoretical issues, which are more often proved or disproved by some general theorem rather than specific calculations or examples."

    He also takes a great interest in his students and has been hailed as a superb mentor to many graduate students, several of whom are now faculty members at other universities. A letter in support of his teaching award nomination reads, "He teaches the art of theoretical research by example rather than by prescription and maintains a respect for the work of his graduate students, which helps us to build the confidence in our own abilities that is so crucial to our future in science."

    Wald further demonstrated this respect for students when organizing a 1996 event, "The Symposium on Black Holes and Relativistic Stars," in honor of the late Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Many of the most prominent scientists in the field of general relativity were invited speakers, including Stephen Hawking, Roger Penrose and Sir Martin Rees. During the planning of the symposium, now seen as a landmark scientific event, Wald held fast to one tenet -- that all University students be able to attend the symposium, which had a $100 fee, free of charge.

    A student later wrote, "In this way, Professor Wald ensured that the symposium would not simply be a meeting of great minds . . . but also an opportunity for the scientists of tomorrow to hear the ideas of some of the greatest scientists of today."

    Wald continues to create opportunities for the scientists of tomorrow -- he currently heads a faculty committee investigating the possibility of creating a new master's program in the Physical Sciences Division.

    -- Diana Steele