Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell Author Interview
METER’s founder, Dr. Gaylon S. Campbell was born in Blackfoot, Idaho, and grew up on a dry farm in Juniper, Idaho. He went to school in Logan, Utah, finally attending Utah State University where he received a B. S. in Physics in 1965 and an M. S. in Soil Physics in 1966. He was granted a Ph. D. in Soil Physics from Washington State University in 1968. He became an officer in the U. S. Army in 1969, doing meteorological research at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. In 1971 he returned to Washington State University as Assistant Professor of Biophysics and Assistant Soil Scientist. There he taught and did research in Environmental Biophysics and Soil Physics until 1998. Since 1998 he has worked as vice president, engineer, and scientist at Decagon Devices, Inc (now METER). He has written three books, over 100 refereed journal articles and book chapters, and has several patents. Today we are interviewing him about his book, An Introduction to Environmental Biophysics.
Where did you get the knowledge to write the book?
I was hired to teach Environmental Biophysics at Washington State University in 1971, and when I looked around for a textbook to go with the class, there weren’t any that fit very well. I knew what I wanted to teach in the class, and some of the principles were in books that were available, but a lot weren’t. So I started writing up notes to hand out to the students and then improved them over time.
One of the important sources of knowledge for my book was John Montieth’s book, Principles of Environmental Physics. Its first edition came out in 1973. It’s a wonderful book. I didn’t know about it until one of my students brought it into class and let me borrow it overnight.
I went home and started reading it. I read it all night, and by morning I’d finished it. I have read some novels that could keep me awake all night, but that’s the only science book I ever read that could do it.
I was really excited about his approach because it was perfect for what I wanted to do in the class. However, it was at a different level than I needed, so I went ahead and developed my own notes, but his book certainly was an important source.
How difficult was it to understand the theory behind what you were writing about?
When I’d take a class in school, I felt like I never understood what was in that class until I attended the next class. Then when I got a bachelor’s degree, I thought, I hope nobody expects me to know something just because I have this degree, because I don’t feel like I know anything. I hoped when I earned a masters degree that it would be better, but I got there and thought, oh boy, I still don’t know anything. It was probably when I took my prelim exam that I finally felt confident enough that I could be a soil physicist if I had to.
But I was wrong about that. I really didn’t understand physics very well, even then. It was when I had to teach it that the real understanding came. When I understood it well enough to lecture about it was when I felt like I had really mastered the theories and understood them at the level that I wanted to.
I suppose that came one piece at a time. In the beginning, I certainly didn’t understand things as well as I did later on. And that still happens today. I learn things that I hadn’t understood before. So I guess when you ask how hard it was: it was an ongoing process. Even when somebody’s already laid it out for you, it doesn’t mean you’re going to understand it. But when you lecture about it and write about it, those are the processes that help to deepen your knowledge and understanding.
The subject is extremely complicated, but people are always saying how easy it is to understand environmental biophysics from your book. How did you bring it down to the level of the students?
When I was in the Army, the philosophy they had was, “If the student hasn’t learned, the teacher hasn’t taught.” That was not the philosophy that you normally encountered at the university. Many professors complained often about how lousy their students were. I never found it to be that way. I always thought my students were getting better and better.
I think it comes down, to some extent, to the philosophy the teacher has. We often see teachers come in and fill the board with equations and wonder why their students don’t understand them. But it’s likely the teacher hasn’t looked at it from the standpoint of the students. The student is going to gain understanding by the same path the teacher did. Professors work and work to put together a wonderful picture of things, and once they have that wonderful picture, they tend to want to dump the whole thing on the student. But students can’t assimilate the whole picture all at once. They have to go step by step too.
If people wanted to learn from your book, what is the best way to get the principles down?
It’s no accident that there are lots of both worked examples and problems for students to solve. I don’t think you can learn physics without solving problems, and so the best way to do it is to look through the ones that we’ve solved in the book and then look through the problems we give at the end of the chapters and solve them. That, I think, is the best way to get there.
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