JOSEPH FORD, recollections by a colleague
Professor Joseph Ford was one of the first physicists to wed the computer and physics to investigate the world of non-linear mechanics. In the process he became one of the first to recognize the chaotic behavior of physical systems. Joe kept his physical systems very simple. The pendulum was a frequent subject of his research seminars. Undergraduate students were fascinated by the complexities introduced from a small non linear damping term introduced into the equation for the pendulum. As no analytical solutions were possible, physicists frequently made approximations resulting in a truncation of an infinite series. Joe used the computer to show the richness of the physical behavior if the terms in the truncation were followed for a longer time-a demonstration of chaotic behavior.
Joe was a student of how students learned. He felt strongly that the lecture was not a good vehicle. He was an advocate of trying new approaches to teaching. The School of Physics adopted the Keller approach as a parallel avenue to lectures and Joe was very supportive of the action. Frequently in lecture classes assigned to him, Joe would inform the students that he was not going to lecture but they were responsible for asking questions to which he would respond. Although Joe would dismiss a class with no questions, students found that on quiz days their policy of no questions caught up with them. The views of Professor Ford were too far from the norm for him to achieve "outstanding teacher" recognition but he was a stimulus to the faculty in seeking new approaches to teaching. Joe's attention to learning behavior and his maverick style did have an influence on instruction at Georgia Tech.
He strove to keep the academic environment controlled by the faculty and an environment open to new ideas and concepts. Whenever he felt an unwanted pressure on his colleagues or himself, he became quite vocal and expressed his opinions. Although not always accepted, his opinions were heard and respected at Georgia Tech. He left Miami because his views were disregarded.
Joe started his professional career with Union Carbide in Niagara Falls, N.Y. His description of the winters and snow fall in the Buffalo area made it surprising that he lasted two years. The climate of the University of Miami was much more compatible with Joe's ideas of comfortable living conditions. He was also able to engage in sailing competitions. In one race he was in a very competitive position coming into the finish at Miami Beach. Unfortunately he made too sharp a turn around a buoy and capsized. Not only did he loose the race but he also lost his billfold.
Joe Ford did not stay long at the University of Miami. He found himself in a confrontational mode with some of the administration. In Joe's opinion the University of Miami was sacrificing educational quality to stimulate increased student enrollment. The opportunity to return to Georgia Tech and a more stimulating research environment was sufficient motivation for him to give up his "Don Quixote" thrusts at the Miami administration.
Joe continued his sailing on moving to Atlanta and frequently entered regattas in the "Thistle Class" at Lake Allatoona.
Joe was a friend and in our early days at Georgia Tech I would occasionally stop by his house for one of his latest batch of home-brew. The discussion was always freewheeling and stimulating. Joe had no interest in administrative work and usually adopted a laissez faire attitude except when he felt that a policy was impeding his ability as a professor or when a colleague was a target. Later in my administrative career, I had occasion to be on the opposite side of some issues with Joe. He frequently expressed his opinions to me and even though I might make a wrong decision in Joe's view I always felt welcome in his office or at his home.