David Layzer: Teaching Science Through Prose or Poetry, But Not Equations

No Taking It Easy

Despite the fact that Layzer doesn't actually lecture in his two Core classes, one could hardly accuse him of taking it easy.

Contrary to the practice of some professors who teach science courses, Layzer meticulously plans out all of the course assignments--about 20 of them, for example, in "Space Time and Motion." In addition, he writes lengthy chapter introductions to each of the sections in his syllabi.

But Layzer isn't merely a distant planner. In fact, he visits each section of each course he teaches as many as three times during the semester. Upon entering a class, Layzer typically asks one of the section leaders for a map of the room, complete with the name of every student in the class.

Such practices, students say, go a long way towards making the professor seem much less intimidating than most others.


"I remember the first time he came and sat in our class, the second he walked into the class everyone directed [their] attention to him," says Carrie Amestoy '93. "We were all quiet and then he says, 'By the way, can you pass the cookies,' and we all thought, 'Oh, my God, he eats.'"

Traditional Background

Despite the fact that he employs an unconventional approach, Layzer can hardly claim an unconventional background. The professor is a Harvard man through and through, having spent his entire undergraduate, graduate and professional years here.

Still, such surroundings hardly seem to hinder his progress. His office at the Harvard Observatory, which commands a sweeping view of the campus, encourages one to sit back and contemplate the larger issues Layzer which thinks about in the course of his work about the universe.

Currently, Layzer is in the process of reworking some of the theories of nature he expounded in Cosmogenesis, a task he says is going quite smoothly.

"After thinking for some months about the problem [an error in his explanation of universal structure] I think I've found the correct idea," Layzer says. "It's like trying to put together a lot of pieces that don't fit together, but if you believe that everything will fit into a picture, then the more pieces you have, the better off you are."

Despite that rather weighty academic challenge occupying much of his professional scrutiny, Layzer hardly confines his attention to his work. In fact, he seems to take equal enjoyment in listing his hobbies, which include playing violin in a chamber music ensemble and playing squash. Recently, he even flew to France to do some biking.

That kind of passion, which Layzer extends throughout all aspects of his life, is hardly lost on his students.

"It's as if [Layzer is] a kid in a candy store," LaRocca says. "He's a little bit of the absentminded professor, which makes him endearing."