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Memories of SSU

Joseph S. Tenn

Professor of Physics & Astronomy 1970-2009

            In February 1970 I was interviewed by the five faculty members of the Sonoma State College Physics Department in the office of Department Chairman Sam Greene. He had come in 1966, when he joined Duncan Poland and Garrison Sposito, who had started the program the year before. John Dunning had joined the Department in January 1969 and George Johnston in the fall of that year.

            By the fall of 1970 there were 7 tenure-track faculty, with the addition of Isaac Bass and myself. This would remain the number for most of the next three decades, despite several changes. Unfortunately, there are only 4-1/4 now.

            I was writing my dissertation on the theory of liquid helium, and a major reason I had obtained an interview was that Gary Sposito wanted to start a research group in that area. One question I was asked was whether I would be willing to teach some astronomy as well as physics. Wanting a job, and thinking it might be interesting to learn something about the subject, I quickly said yes. Little did I know that I would end up teaching about as much astronomy as physics and doing research both in astronomy and in the history of astronomy.

            My letter of appointment was signed by President Ambrose R. Nichols, Jr., who would resign before I arrived. It informed me that my annual salary would be $10,800 if I were granted my doctorate by the time the fall semester began, $10,284 otherwise, so I learned exactly how much my Ph.D. (granted in August) was worth.

            There have been many name changes: The Physics Department became the Department of Physics and Astronomy in 1973. The Division of Natural Sciences became the School of Natural Sciences in 1981 and then the School of Science and Technology in 2001. And Sonoma State College was renamed (over faculty protests) California State College, Sonoma in 1972. It had its named changed back by an act of the state legislature overruling the Board of Trustees in 1976; and finally became Sonoma State University in 1978.

            Aside from teaching, one of my main activities during my 39 years at SSU was public relations and recruitment of students, stimulated by a threat from the Board of Trustees in 1971 to discontinue small degree programs. Partly for this reason, but also to provide our students with a window to physics and astronomy beyond the campus, I founded an undergraduate colloquium/public lecture series, “What Physicists Do,” in my second semester. By the time I retired in June 2009 I had directed the series for 63½ of its 77 semesters. Speakers have included 13 Nobel laureates and a number of other prominent scientists and engineers. I also started an annual newsletter, The Physics Major, in 1974. All issues are now online.

            I also became Department Advisor in Spring 1971, and I held this position for most of the next 30 years, until I was demoted to Department Chair in 2001. Sometime in the 1970s I decided that the department should maintain contact with its graduates, so I looked up the records in the Registrar’s Office and keypunched an IBM card for each graduate with the graduate’s name, contact information, and degree information. I still maintain this database and correspond with as many grads as possible each year. One can now go to the Department website and see the professional achievements of more than two-thirds of all SSU physics graduates. I have met all but the first one, and I have corresponded with her and talked with her on the telephone. I still hope to meet her!