James Ring ’51
Professor of Physics (1957-2003)
James Walter Ring was born in Worcester, NY, in 1929, grew up in Jamestown, south of Buffalo, and first joined Hamilton as a member of the class of 1951. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in mathematics and physics and went on to study nuclear physics at the University of Rochester, where he was elected to Sigma Xi and graduated in 1958. Before graduation, he had returned to his alma mater to join his former professor Harvey Cameron, bringing the physics department to two FTEs. Between them they taught six year-long courses, while Larry Yourtee of Chemistry taught an additional year-long course in Physical Science. Three years later, in 1960, Jim married his beloved wife Betty, a Canadian who would teach in the Philosophy department at Hamilton from 1968 until 1992. Then, in 1963, their son Andy was born. Andy would go on to follow his father to Hamilton as a student in the class of 1984, one of the rare Hamilton students who have had to take a class from their own father.
Jim was trained as a nuclear physicist and remained true to that calling for the first half of his life at Hamilton. He built and operated a small neutron source in the basement of the Science building so that he could involve students in practical neutron physics. This was a rather significant endeavor involving the construction of a wall of paraffin wax several feet thick around and over the neutron source. To access more significant neutron sources, Jim took sabbaticals at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell near Oxford in England. Jim also established a research collaboration with Don Denney in the Chemistry department at Hamilton, studying the mobility of water molecules as a function of temperature by making measurements of the response of water ice to alternating electric fields. Jim’s interest in atomic energy lead both to activism in the nuclear freeze movement of the 1980s and to an interest in alternative forms of energy that dominated the rest of his research career. He attracted the interest of Hamilton’s own Elihu Root III, who was also passionate about alternative energy and a lifelong tinkerer and inventor. The result of their collaboration was the Solar Classroom on Peter’s Road, which they designed and had built as a research facility with instrumentation buried in the concrete foundation. This allowed them to make a series of careful measurements on the efficiency of the building that showed better agreement with theory than those of a similar project undertaken by Los Alamos National Labs. Phil Pearle remembers that Jim’s presentation at a national meeting
concluded with “And this had no government funding” … and he got a standing ovation.
In later years Jim collaborated with Phil Pearle to analyze results of nuclear physics experiments that shed light on Phil’s theories of quantum mechanics. He also combined his lifelong interest in architecture with his interests in environmental physics and European travel to undertake a study of the physics of Roman baths in which he was able to prove that the Romans must of used glass in their bathhouses in order for the various hot and cold rooms to work effectively and involving students in his research to the end of career.
During that career, Jim taught almost every course that the department offered and developed a number of courses that especially bore his signature. The first was a course on architecture from a physics and structural engineering perspective and the second his Energy and the Environment course. These were courses in physics as a liberal art in the most central sense. They had no prerequisites and were taught to large classes of students from across the campus. Energy and the Environment was one of the earliest specifically environmentally focused courses taught at the college outside the Biology department. Jim was also the prime mover in instituting the cooperative engineering programs that allow interested students to start at Hamilton, go to an engineering school, and graduate with degrees from both institutions. He continued to be the advisor for those programs until his retirement.
Jim became chair of the Physics department in 1968 and lead the department, formally and informally, through major curricular changes and through a period of rapid growth that brought the department to 5 FTE, when I joined the college in 1986. He created a culture of service to the students and the department that continues to guide the department to this day. In the early 1990s, when the teaching load at the college went from 6 courses per year to 5, Jim fought hard to keep the total teaching power of the department unchanged and won a sixth renewable position. When a later reallocation took this position away from the department, Jim came up with a plan to mitigate the effect on our teaching by going to half time, freeing up an FTE to allow us to hire Gordon Jones in 1999. Jim continued to teach for four years past his official retirement in 2003. During those last years he always put his teaching effort into courses that would best serve the department and students. Regardless of the effort involved, he taught in some of our largest and most demanding teaching loads, including the pre-med course and his own Energy and Environment course. He also continued to develop new courses, taking part with his friend Peter Rabinowitz in the team-taught Hiroshima and After first-year seminar and going on to develop a sophomore seminar, It’s About Time, with Peter. He taught his last course in 2007, fifty years after his first. In fall of 2002, the joint retirement party for Jim and Phil Pearle filled the old Bundy dining hall with friends and former students from as far away as Japan and was a remarkable demonstration of the love that generations of students had for Jim and Phil.
Beloved in the classroom, one of the most profoundly gentle men I have known, an early advocate of research work with students, a pioneer in environmental studies, longtime engineering advisor, and the spiritual father of a department that has been a happy for generations of students and faculty, Jim was also a powerful progressive force on the Campus. Phil Pearle recalls that, despite the tense, often vicious, opposition to Kirkland among some parts of the Hamilton faculty in the period after Phil’s arrival in 1969, Jim went out of his way to be friendly and receptive to the Kirkland faculty. Ten years later, with the merger of the colleges, Jim was a leader in the efforts to create an amicable joining of the faculties, opposing the disastrous decision to delegitimize the Kirkland faculty. Peter Millet recalls that by the time of the merger Jim was already
intent on making the department inviting for the increasing number of women students who came to the hill with an eye toward studying the sciences. One result of that was the hiring of women physicists (a scarce resource at the time) under his leadership: beginning with Alma Zook in ’77 … and Rebecca McCraw and Roset Khosropour in ’82. Another was encouraging women students to take on visible laboratory assistant positions in the introductory courses.
Later, in the 1980s, Jim lead the committee that conducted a deep and influential study of the Fraternity culture at Hamilton and helped lead to the residential life decision; a decision that Jim always regarded as a poor compromise. Jim had a profound belief in faculty governance and was a formidable presence at faculty meetings, sitting in the front row of the progressive side of the Dwight lounge and firmly voting no on every attempt to cut short debate. Around the same time he was also president of the Hamilton chapter of the AAUP, running the AAUP lecture series, and regularly speaking on its behalf at faculty meetings.
Beyond his twin passions for physics and the college Jim had a wide range of interests. Peter Millet remembers him as “an ardent cross country skier who, for many years, would commute on skis from his home on Griffin Road during the snowy months” and I well remember that he always had skis in his office any time there was snow on the ground. In finer weather, he played tennis and squash and was a member of the occasional Physics Department softball team. His lifelong interests in architecture and art history lead to his retirement avocation of watercolor painting. He started studying watercolors when he first reduced his teaching load and went on to become a skilled artist, exhibiting his work locally. He was also a serious fan of the novels of Jane Austen and loved to share his passion with others. Over the last few years, his life centered more and more on Betty, as her Alzheimer’s started to sever their nearly 60 year marriage, though Jim still found time to work on setting up an endowment for the college to fund student work on environmental issues. Finally, his own health started to fail and Jim died on April 29th 2019.