Remembering Frederick Reif

Monday, August 26, 2019

Frederick Reif, emeritus professor in Physics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, died on August 11th, 2019. He was 92.  A member of the Carnegie Mellon faculty for eleven years, he taught previously at UC Berkeley for twenty-nine years and the University of Chicago for eight years. Fred had a prolific scientific career, where he studied a wide range of topics from superfluids to cognition and education.

Frederich (later Frederick) Reif was born in Vienna, Austria in 1927 to Gerschon Reif, a dentist, and Klara (Chaja Lea) Gottfried Reif, a homemaker, who had come to that city after World War I from their native Poland (until the war the province of Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian empire). Along with his younger sister Liane (b.1934), they lived very comfortably near the Prater. Fred received violin lessons, in which he excelled (and which would provide a lifelong solace) and began studies at an academic Gymnasium (high school) at age 10.

With the rise of the Nazi regime, and particularly after the November 1938 Kristalnacht pogrom, their lives changed drastically. Fred’s father committed suicide just prior to their departure on the ill-fated S.S. St. Louis, which was bound for Cuba with 937 Jewish refugees, but forced to return to Europe, where Fred, his mother, and his sister disembarked in France. They lived as refugees supported by international Jewish aid in Loudon where Fred learned French, and when the Germans had occupied northern France in Limoges where he attended Lycée. In 1941 they managed to secure a visa and passage to emigrate, sponsored by relatives (Klinghoffer family) in New York. They made their way across Spain to Portugal, where they set sail. As a teenager, with his knowledge of French, Fred assumed a fatherly role in making important decisions for the family.

Fred completed Erasmus Hall high school in Brooklyn, New York and began studies at Columbia University, but at age 18 was drafted into the U.S. Army. After basic training he was tasked with strategic language study and sent to Yale to learn Japanese. Upon completing his service, he returned to Columbia (BA 1948) and continued on to Harvard University to study Physics (PhD 1953). Fred’s first faculty position was in the Physics Department at the University of Chicago where he worked with Enrico Fermi (1953 to 1960), then he was hired as a professor of Physics and Education at the University of California at Berkeley (1960 to 1989), and finally he served as a professor of Physics and Psychology at Carnegie Mellon University (1989 to 2000). Thereafter he held the status of professor emeritus at both UC Berkeley and Carnegie Mellon.

Fred’s books Fundamentals of Thermal and Statistical Physics (1965), Statistical Physics (Berkeley Physics Series, 1967), and Understanding Basic Mechanics (1995) remain standard texts in the field today. After more than ten years’ research in physics and a dozen important papers on topics such as the quantization of vortex rings and gapless superconductivity, he turned to research in education. He was among the pioneers in the development of the phenomenon of physics education research in the 1960s, a field he was devoted to as “analytical yet humanly compelling.” He also co-founded its first formal, interdisciplinary PhD program, known as the SESAME program (Graduate Group in Science and Mathematics Education) at University of California, Berkeley in 1969 together with Bob Karplus. At Carnegie Mellon, he was instrumental in introducing numerous educational innovations to the Physics Department, including group work with white boards, undergraduate teaching assistants, and interactive teaching methods like concept tests in lectures to gauge student comprehension (early precursors to today’s “clickers”). He also made a profound, lasting, and much-adored influence on the Science Teaching Department at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel. In 1994 he was awarded the Robert A. Millikan Medal, which recognizes those who have made notable and intellectually creative contributions to the teaching of physics. He was also a Fellow of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 1988 he received a Phi Beta Kappa Teaching Excellence Award. His final book, Applying cognitive science to education: Thinking and learning in scientific domains, was published in 2008 by the MIT Press.

As one of his former students put it, “Fred was distinctively Fred.” He was a singular character whose difficult early years shaped him in profound ways. A pessimist who loved optimists, he spent most of his energies on his considerable professional achievements, but late in life he agreed to recount his Holocaust experiences to Pittsburgh-area high school students. He also had soft spots for teddy bears and bubbly personalities. Fred’s first wife was "queen of carbon science" Mildred Dresselhaus. He is survived by his wife, sociological gerontologist and nurse Laura (Ott) Reif, former wife and cognitive scientist Jill (Larkin) Wellman, his sister and biochemist Liane Reif-Lehrer, brother-in-law and biochemist Sam Lehrer, nephew and artist Damon Lehrer (with his wife Aimee Lebrun and son Nathan Huckleberry Lebrun Lehrer), and niece, cultural anthropologist Erica Lehrer.

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