Sunday, November 27, 2022

Mark Peterson, RIP

Dr. Peterson was one of my first teachers at Amherst. None ever surpassed him in his patience, empathy, or ability to create understanding. He also had a quiet wit that created a moment I will never forget.

After literally every other member of the physics department had declined to do so, I walked into Mark Peterson's office in 1979 and said, "Professor Peterson, you are my last chance. No one else will do a thesis with me. Will you?" He said, "Of course I will, but I get to pick the topic." It was a deal.

The topic he picked involved scattering laser light off microscopic glass tubes. Making the tubes was hard. Before our first success, I wrote computer programs that predicted the scattering pattern. At a mid-thesis presentation, most of the physics faculty looked at them rather skeptically, as those predictions showed highly erratic blobs of light, encircling the tube.

Towards the end of spring, 1980, we finally made a microscopic glass tube. Dr. Peterson watched over me as, ever so gently, I mounted the tube in a stand where the laser could light it up. We dimmed the room, switched on the beam and saw, all around on the walls, highly erratic blobs of light, encircling the tube.

I will always remember, in the darkness next to me, my advisor, Mark Peterson, saying, "Well. This ought to silence those doubters."

He was the kind of person who found a reason to have faith in you, when no one else could. I teach at a university myself, these days. With every student I meet, I try to do for them what Mark Peterson did for me: find something to have faith in. Thanks for teaching me that lesson, Doc.

Stevens R. Miller, '80
Lecturer, Computer Science
University of Maryland, College Park

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