by Martin Garrell
After a career spanning more than 50 years Professor Eugene Hecht retired from Adelphi University’s physics department during the COVID-19 summer of 2020. Gene first set foot on Adelphi’s campus in 1963 as a graduate assistant and completed his PhD here in 1967, joining the faculty that fall as an assistant professor; he was appointed full professor in 1978. In the academic lead-up to his Adelphi career, he earned a bachelor of science degree from NYU in engineering physics in 1960 and a master’s degree in physics from Rutgers University in 1963.
On campus, Gene was always a favorite among his students. On two occasions, 1996 and 2005, he was named “Professor of the Year” by the student body. Anyone who ever saw him in action in a classroom could easily see why. A big voice, sweeping chalkboard (now whiteboard) technique and lots of wit were hallmarks of his teaching style, whether in subjects like optics (his research passion during much of his career), the history of physics (the subject of many of his later papers) or simply general physics for undergraduates (a specialty of his during his entire career). Gene’s office during the last couple of decades in the bowels of Blodgett Hall (notorious for floods and mold) was located across from a long wall display of Albert Einstein posters. The handsome exhibit was hung in 1979 in honor of the centennial of Einstein’s birth. This was particularly fitting, because Gene so loved digging into significant questions about special and general relativity as well as the contradictions of the quantum world.
In his years of teaching at Adelphi, you always knew Gene was around because of the lines of students waiting to see him about physics, about life or just about grades. This deep affection for students and their problems was behind his teaching and justifiably led to his reputation as explicator, teacher and counselor.
Gene served for a time as a faculty adviser to one of Adelphi’s more “colorful” presidents during “interesting times” in the 1990s. He appeared on several occasions in multimedia advertisements touting Adelphi as the “Harvard of Long Island” (or was it, “Harvard as the Adelphi of Massachusetts”?) as he helped the school get through those pivotal years. He also served for a time as vice president of the Faculty Senate. His most recent major contribution to the department was the work that he did with the chairman of the physics department, Professor Gottipaty Rao, setting up an undergraduate laser research laboratory through an NSF grant in the mid-’90s.That lab under Dr. Rao’s perceptive leadership has shaped much of the Adelphi physics research program in the years since.
First and foremost, Gene is a writer. As a student in one of New York City’s most selective high schools, Brooklyn Technical High School, he was valedictorian in a class of 756 and edited the school literary magazine under the tutelage of Tech’s premier English teacher, Mary Heslin. A great many of her students would become published writers in later years. With that background, it was little wonder that Gene authored a number of textbooks that have become standard texts in different fields of physics everywhere. Optics, now in its fifth edition, is the leading optics text in the world, while his two versions of Physics—one subtitled Algebra/Trig, the other subtitled Calculus—stand out as invaluable texts for all students of the sciences. They are filled with explication, historical context and Gene’s artwork, and serve as exemplary models of what general textbooks ought to be. Details are often encyclopedic, making them enlightening reference works for students and researchers who go on to specialize in physics and other fields. For a lighter version, Gene’s earliest general text (1980), Physics in Perspectives, is outstanding as well. For the uninitiated, the curious, the self-taught seeker of scientific principles, it’s the perfect introduction to the fundamentals of the discipline. Gene has published extensively in peer-reviewed journals, with more than 60 acclaimed papers dating back to 1962 on topics as diverse as satellites, superconductivity, optics and relativity. Energy, mass, history of science, gravity and the arrow of time have all captured his imagination and inspired his research and his published papers. He has held seminars and given dozens of talks at major conferences and universities all over the world.
A man for all seasons, Gene has managed to balance his life of science with a specialized focus on the arts and taught several courses in art history at Adelphi. In recent decades, he became a nationally and internationally recognized authority on American art pottery, in general, and on the Biloxi, Mississippi, potter George E. Ohr, in particular. He has lectured about Ohr and pottery in the U.S. and abroad and published myriad books and articles on Ohr and his “mud babies.” His stunning coffee table book, George Ohr: The Greatest Art Potter on Earth, was published in 2013.
And in yet another path outside the academic halls, the physics of form and balance are made manifest in Gene’s commitment to tae kwan do. Having recently celebrated his 82nd birthday, he continues to actively pursue his sixth degree black belt.
Currently enjoying emeritus status at Adelphi, Professor Hecht is fully occupied working on all these things. And he is, after all, still following in the tradition of “natural philosophy” that goes back to the beginnings of the scientific revolution. Watch for his latest on Einstein, Kepler, Newton… and everything else!