The Lawses of Physics|
By Barbara Spector
Husband-and-wife physicists Kenneth L. Laws, Ph.D. ’62, and Priscilla W. Laws, Ph.D. ’66, both retired recently as physics professors at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., yet they remain busy. Priscilla is part of an author team developing a new introductory textbook, Understanding Physics. Ken’s book Physics and the Art of Dance: Understanding Movement was published last year by Oxford University Press.
Ken Laws first became interested in dance in 1975, when his children, then ages 7 and 5, announced that they wanted to study ballet. “I didn’t want to be left out of something my kids were involved in,” recalls Laws, who was 40 at the time. They all soon enrolled at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet (CPYB).
Laws became involved in virtually all aspects of the company — on the stage, behind the scenes and in the dance studio. He has been an adjunct teacher at CPYB since 1986, has served on its board (five years as president) and was its audio technician for 24 years. He has performed in 22 ballets and appeared in every CPYB performance of The Nutcracker for 26 consecutive years.
Physics of Dance
Laws’ investigations of the physical principles behind dance movements were sparked by an incident that occurred when he was a beginner, the only adult in a roomful of youngsters. The instructor had asked the class to put their left hands on the barre and extend their right hands, then lift their right legs and extend them out. Laws realized that their center of gravity would shift toward the right leg; the pupils compensated by subtly shifting their weight to keep from losing their balance. “The kids were ‘cheating’ to appear to accomplish something I knew was impossible.”
Laws authored the first of about 30 articles on the subject in 1978. In 1984, he published The Physics of Dance (Schirmer Books); he later collaborated with Cynthia Harvey, then a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, to write Physics, Dance and the Pas de Deux (Schirmer, 1994).
Laws stresses that what he loves most about classical ballet is its splendor as an art form. “The beauty of the pas de deux turned my life upside down,” he says.
Meanwhile, Priscilla Laws has been changing the course of science education. In 1986, she and colleagues introduced Workshop Physics, a pedagogical method that eschews formal lectures in favor of collaborative activities and the use of computer tools for rapid collection, graphing and analysis of data. “We developed a method for teaching courses entirely in the laboratory,” she says. Class activities include pitching baseballs, building electronic circuits and pulling objects up inclined planes.
Laws has authored or co-authored several introductory physics books, including the Workshop Physics Activity Guide (John Wiley & Sons, 1996) and Explorations in Physics (John Wiley & Sons, 2003). She has received several national awards, including the Robert A. Millikan Award from the American Association of Physics Teachers in 1996 and a Charles A. Dana Award in education in 1993 along with Ronald K. Thornton of Tufts University.
The curriculum represents “what I call holistic reform,” Laws says. She and colleagues revamped virtually all elements of an introductory physics class. They not only changed the apparatus and curriculum materials, but also reduced class size and redesigned classrooms to enhance collaborative learning. They rearranged schedules to overcome the limitations of a 50-minute lecture three times a week plus a weekly three-hour lab. Their program instead involves two hours of collaborative laboratory work thrice weekly. “We felt that a three-hour lab exhausts students and a 50-minute lecture is too short,” she explains.
“The interaction between peers is an extremely valuable experience,” Laws says. Significantly, it mirrors scientific colleagues’ laboratory collaborations, she notes.
Graduate Work at Bryn Mawr
Priscilla Laws did her doctoral research in theoretical nuclear physics at Bryn Mawr. “Walter Michels, Rosalie Hoyt and John Pruett, who was my adviser, were fantastic teachers,” she says.
The faculty’s use of Socratic dialogue influenced her approach to science education later in her career, Laws says. She recalls giving a lesson on scattering theory to her graduate quantum-physics class. “I remembered slowly but surely getting a very deep understanding of scattering theory that I never would have acquired if I had just attended lectures.”
Ken Laws, who did doctoral research in solid-state physics, was one of the first two male Ph.D. physics students at Bryn Mawr, along with Lawrence Holland, M.A. ’57, Ph.D. ’62, now a retired professor of physics at Alabama A&M University. Bryn Mawr’s emphasis on active learning “opened our minds to looking at nature,” he says. “That’s what has stuck with me, more than any of the formal training. That’s what made me open to studying the physics of dance.”
Priscilla Laws arrived at Bryn Mawr during her future husband’s last year at the College, though the two did not begin dating until after he had joined the Dickinson faculty; they got together during one of his frequent visits to the Philadelphia area. The couple married in 1965, the same year she began teaching at Dickinson. “I always say that back then, physicists were hard to come by, and in order to get them to come to Dickinson, we had to marry them,” Ken Laws jokes. Their son-in-law, David Jackson, is now a member of Dickinson’s physics faculty.
About the Author
Barbara Spector writes on science and technology as well as business topics. She is the executive editor of Family Business magazine and former editor of The Scientist.