The Scientific Showman

Faculty Profile

Asociate Professor I. Bernard Cohen is not a stranger to the public spotlight. In fact, in his first Natural Sciences 3 lecture last year, he switched out all the lights in Burr B and introduced the course while an assistant focused a spotlight on him. Although he does not always employ such theatrical effects in his History of Science and Learning course, this great self-confidence shines through wherever he lectures.

After graduating from Harvard in 1937 with a cum laude Bacehlor of Science degree, Cohen stepped along the usual educational trail with a brief detour to the research department of Carnegie Institute in Washington. The war interrupted his work and called him back to Harvard to instruct physics in the accelerated Army and Navy programs. Finding time to do the necessary work for his doctoral degree, he received an Assistant Professorship in 1947. Last year he advanced to an Associate Professor.

The war over, Cohen and Professor George Sarton designed an elementary Natural Science Course to fit into the new General Education scheme. About the nature of the course and its students, Cohen says, "As the most elementary course in the field, it presents quite a challenge for me and my staff to get even the rudiments across to scientifically naive students." Judging from the continued peak enrollment, he has adequately met the challenge.

At least one freshman last year learned that Cohen will go to any lengths to make a point. This seemingly bored student was lounging over a couple of seats, absorbed in Cambridge's only Breakfast Table Daily when Cohen spied him. Bounding up the endless stairs to the top row of Burr B, he snatched the paper out of the bewildered scholar's hands and shouted, "The Crimson is a fine paper--outside of class!"

In addition to authoring several scientific treatises, Cohen has broadened the understanding of his own field by many contributions explaining the interplay of science and society. His newest work, Benjamin Franklin is one of the "Makers of the American Tradition Series." And recently, on the retirement of George Sarton, he took over as chairman of Isis, the organ of the History of Science school.

Reminiscing about his childhood school days, Cohen admits, "I was in a group of boys with exceptionally high IQ's who were chosen to complete their education at Dalton, an ultra-progressive school. Our introduction to progressive education didn't last long, though, because they couldn't hold us down. Anyway, I graduated when I was fifteen."

Unlike many of his colleagues, Cohen has no worries about the future, "I've got an Associate Professorship with a relatively small, if popular, department; and I am a non resident Tutor in Eliot House. A full Professorship? I don't think about such things. They just seem to happen."