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It was the late 1930s at Columbia University, and Lloyd Motz faced Enrico Fermi across the tennis court in the annual faculty tournament. Fermi's game was skittish, while Motz, recalling the event 60 years later, held his ground: "He would run down everything! I played the net."
Motz won, and, true to form, launched into a discussion not of tennis strategy, but of how tighter racquet strings, and so the law of conservation of momentum, dictate the tennis ball's flight.
This is the world of Dr. Motz, professor emeritus of astronomy and well-known educator, whose ardor for science is undiminished at 86. It's a world in which basic principles of physics inform everyday existence, and one in which anecdotes about Einstein or Fermat's Last Theorem, for which he has offered a proof, are as likely as the weather to crop up in conversation.
Dr. Motz will be honored Nov. 21 in an appreciation entitled "Sixty Years of Explaining the Universe, 1937-1997." Hosting the program will be Hugh Downs, co-anchor of the ABC news magazine "20/20" and a former student who took astronomy at Columbia in 1957 to prepare for the first International Geophysical Year. Gillian Lindt, dean of the School of General Studies, will offer welcoming remarks, and David J. Helfand, professor and chairman of the Department of Astronomy, will discuss what science has learned about the cosmos since Dr. Motz first taught at Columbia. Attendees will adjourn to the telescope in Columbia's Rutherfurd Observatory atop Pupin Physics Laboratories for a viewing of the heavens, weather permitting. For reservations to the Nov. 21 event, call Natasha Maximoff at (212) 854-8490.
To mark the occasion, the School of General Studies will establish a scholarship in Dr. Motz's name. "We want future General Studies students to have the opportunity to discover the beauty of science exemplified in the astronomer's quest to understand the universe," Dean Lindt said.
Beating Fermi at tennis is probably the least of Dr. Motz's achievements. Copies of his 21 books in several languages line the shelves in his top-floor office in Pupin. Some are theoretical treatises on the internal structure of stars, nuclear physics or geometrical optics, but his best-known works speak to a general audience. Science need not be difficult or complicated, Dr. Motz believes, if writers focus on the simple principles that govern the universe. His "Essentials of Astronomy," published in 1966 with Anneta Duveen, is "arguably the best introductory astronomy text ever written," Professor Helfand said. The secret to his publishing success? "My first version is my last version," Dr. Motz said.
Born in Susquehanna, Pa., in 1910, he graduated from City College in 1930 and began his teaching career at Columbia while studying for his Ph.D. in physics, which he received in 1936. He recalls the career advice proffered by his mentor, I.I. Rabi, at a time when jobs for physicists were as scarce as they are now: "Lloyd, why don't you become a rabbi?"
Instead, Dr. Motz taught introductory astronomy, astronomical physics and celestial mechanics as a lecturer in the School of General Studies, Columbia's liberal arts college for students who have had to postpone or interrupt their education. After World War II, Columbia was swamped with returning soldiers on the G.I. Bill; as many as 300 students jammed his "Concepts of Science" course. He was appointed assistant professor in 1950, associate professor in 1954 and professor in 1963. He founded the Phi Beta Kappa society in General Studies and served as its secretary until last year.
"Some of my students wanted to be dancers or novelists, and they took astronomy because Columbia has a science requirement," he said. "But some were so overwhelmed with the beauty of science that they wanted to continue."
Dr. Motz is bracketed by Nobelists: Rabi, his mentor, won in 1944 for his measurements of the radio-frequency spectra of atomic nuclei. And Dr. Motz was mentor to Julian Schwinger, convincing the physics whiz kid to transfer from City College to Columbia; Schwinger won the Nobel in 1965 for the theory of virtual particles.
Sixty years of teaching, at City College, Queens College, Polytechnic University and the New School, as well as Columbia, have made Dr. Motz something of a household name in New York City circles.
"He's been Columbia's ambassador to New York City for decades," Professor Helfand said. "No matter where you are in the city, if you say you work at Columbia someone will ask, 'Oh, do you know Lloyd Motz?' It's quite remarkable. You don't even have to say you're from astronomy.
"Professor Motz is an examplar of our prime mission, to explain the universe to the public and to students. No one has done it more successfully."
In 1959, he helped initiate Columbia's Saturday morning Science Honors Program, and taught high school students in the program until 1992. As president of the New York Academy of Sciences in 1970, he developed outreach programs to bring Academy members to lecture to high school classes. Public lecturer par excellence, he hosted a series on WABC-TV in the early 1970s titled "Exploration of the Universe." He is a frequent guest at informal science dinners hosted by Mr. Downs, an amateur astronomer who has written for Sky and Telescope, among other publications.
Photographs of the Motz family line the bookcase in his office. His wife, Minne, holds a degree in library science from Columbia; his daughter, Julie, has a degree in public health, and his son, Robin, has a Ph.D. in physics and an M.D. and is assistant professor of clinical medicine at the College of Physicians & Surgeons. A granddaughter, Nicole, has a degree in physical therapy from the University.
Dr. Motz, who was named professor emeritus in 1977, believes the major discoveries in physics have already been made, and that what remains is for science to harness that knowledge to humanity's benefit. Of those 60 years of teaching, he now offers but a few words: "Columbia has been a lot of fun."