Former Physics Professor's "Voice" Still Remembered in the Classroom


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Sumner P. Davis, a glider plane pilot and former professor of physics, died on Dec. 31, 2008 in a care facility in El Cerrito following a brief illness. He was 84.

Davis was a physicist at UC Berkeley who devoted much of his time to running a physics laboratory on campus and studying spectroscopy, said Thomas Colton, supervisor of the instructional support group in physics and a former colleague of Davis.

Davis began his career at UC Berkeley in July 1960 as an assistant professor. He retired in 1993, but continued to work at the lab until 2004.

Former students said Davis focused on spectroscopy, which deals with understanding the features of molecules by measuring the light emitted from them. He worked on his research with 36 graduate students, traveling to places like Argentina to work with other spectroscopists.

After Davis retired, he continued to work on campus running the Physics 111 Laboratory, the advanced laboratory offering a two-semester sequence of laboratory modules that help students apply physics to practical situations. He is known for starring in instructional videos shown in class, which explain laboratory procedures to students, Colton said.

"He was kind of the heart and soul of the course," he said. "He made the instructional videos. You hear his voice so in one way, he's still with us."

One of his graduate students, Jack Feinberg, who is now a professor at USC, says he uses these instructional videos in his physics lectures because they are readily available on the Internet.

While Davis taught both introductory and upper division classes in physics, he was best known for the strong relationships he maintained with both his graduate and undergraduate students and his optimistic personality.

"On my first day of class I thought, 'Who is this guy with bushy hair and beard wearing loud L.L. Bean pants?'," said Laura Eaton, who took Sumner's class as a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering. "As the quarter progressed, it became clear how great he was. Through the rest of my years at Cal, he gave me encouragement, leads to jobs and was always there to listen to my latest stories-even my disastrous dates."

Outside the classroom, Davis was known to invite students to his house to play music or offer them rides on his glider plane.

"He didn't have kids of his own so he treated his graduate students as his own family," Feinberg said.


Contact Erika Oblea at [email protected]

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