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Fifty-five years of teaching Physics is quantum achievement for Dr. Allen Dotson

Written by St. Andrews

Perhaps it was inevitable or some predictable physics formula that would dictate what Allen Dotson would do or become.  Born in Badin, NC, his father was a chemist;  his brother was a mathematician.

And so he became an amalgamation of sorts—a physicist—having once considered biology and even the lure of astronomy (which he continues to dabble in). But eventually the enticement of quantum mechanics inspired him to look at physics and the rest of that narrative led him to a B.S. at Wake Forest (1960) and a Ph.D. at UNC (1964).  From 1964-1981, he taught at Western Michigan University.  Since 1981, St. Andrews has been his home and laboratory and this past semester, Dr. Dotson said goodbye to classes but likely not the last of being seen and welcomed on campus.

His academic and research career began at Western Michigan teaching physics, analytical and statistical mechanics and eventually chaired the physics department.  He likely would have stayed there, but family concerns brought him back to North Carolina and a job at St. Andrews.  He never left but for one somewhat strange semester.  At the conclusion of the fall 1994 semester, he was informed that he didn’t have a job any longer—and at the time he was the chemistry and physics chair.

The end of 1994 saw a college-wide restructuring of faculty and staff positions that might have meant the loss of his position.  During the spring of 1995, without much planning and with no certainty of a position for the future, Dr. Dotson went to Ecuador and taught English as part of an on-going exchange program St. Andrews had established with the University of Cuenca.

Upon his return, Dr. Dotson agreed to devote more time to teaching mathematics.  Not only was his position retained, but Dr. Dotson was appointed chair of both physics and mathematics.  In the years that followed, he taught a myriad of physics-related courses and labs, as well as courses in mathematics and SAGE while mentoring many students and advisees.  Plus, he chaired the annual McNair Science and Religion seminars.

In 2008, he was acknowledged by his faculty peers and awarded the Distinguished Faculty Award.

Mixed in with his campus activities and teaching, the more reclusive part of his life was being played out in a number of research projects and papers that were being developed in Morgan-Jones, particularly as they related to his focus on theoretical and particle physics.

The list is significant:  Quantum-Theoretic Definitions of the Measurement Event;  What Determines Whether a Wave Function is Inherently Necessary?;   On Creating Values of Physical Properties Nonlocally;  Nonlocal Interactions:  A Jammerian Analysis;  Interpretive Principles and the Quantum MysteriesBell’s Theorem and the Features of Physical Properties.  He often wrote letters to the “American Journal of Physics” and “Physics Today.”

Paralleling Dr. Dotson’s rigorous teaching and classroom approach, his research would also resemble his precision as his 1988 paper on Quantum-Theoretic Definitions of the Measurement Event begins:  “Two ways of defining measurement events in quantum mechanics are discussed in the context of spin-correlation analyses … The standard approach does lead to models, but fits well with one understanding of the Copenhagen interpretation and may help to clarify options in further developing that interpretation.”

And, as St. Andrews professors and departments have been known and urged to collaborate, Dr. Dotson acknowledges then Philosophy professor Dr. William Alexander who apparently provided “encouragement and assistance in selecting some of the reference material” for the paper on Quantum-Theoretic definitions.

Other engagements included lecturing in Colorado, Salt Lake City and a return to Ecuador for a summer of teaching English in 2006.

His ability to integrate study, research and mentoring also played a profound part in students who went on to graduate school including Matteo Palimeno (Sardinia, Italy) who came to study forensic science and mathematics and graduated in 2017.  Matteo earned his M.S. in Applied Math with a concentration in Dynamical Systems this past spring at San Diego State University and will begin his Ph.D. studies in Applied Math at the University of California Merced this fall.

Matteo refers to Dr. Dotson as a superb mentor:  “As you can see, if I stretched my arms out, I would spin more slowly, whereas pulling my arms in makes me rotate faster,” Dr. Dotson said as he spun around the classroom to show the principle of Conservation of Angular Momentum.  While that was not the first time I met Dr. Dotson, it was a remarkable moment that made me appreciate his passion for the material he was teaching and the job he was doing.  Dr. Dotson was an important mentor to me, and our individual study sessions pushed me to pursue a career in science research.  I was lucky enough to meet him and have him as a teacher, and I will be forever grateful that our paths crossed.  I hope he will enjoy his well-deserved time off and I would like to congratulate him on his remarkable career, and wish him the best for this new chapter of his life.”

Beyond physics and science, another dimension that applies to Dr. Dotson’s interests is his faith and how it has led to affirm that science and religion produce a vital and coherent whole.  His first book (with the hint of a second in the making) is titled “The Relevance of Jesus’ Own Gospel—the views of a physics teacher” (WestBow Press 2013).  He, as almost in a classroom, initiates a study and  discussion of how religious experience and scientific evidence can coexist and reaches his conclusion, “that God loves—all people everywhere—with a love that will never end and that is good enough for me.”

And that is the calm, unassuming physicist preaching out of the classroom.  But to digress briefly, Dr. Dotson did create a bit of a local stir in 1996 when he dared to disturb the “Secret of Gravity Hill” in a Fayetteville Observer story, that spot in nearby Johns where legend has it that cars and trucks roll up hill, defying gravity.  Armed with a carpenter’s level and a pickup truck (not his), he took on Gravity Hill and declared it was gravity acting as it should.  “Vehicles were not going up hill on their own, it just appeared that way and the level proved it.“

The actual physics of it is not strange.  You are really rolling downhill even though it looks like you’re rolling uphill—it’s an illusion.”  However, his scientific “discovery” was not warmly welcomed, he says, and received some negative responses.

But other than Gravity Hill and one semester away, Dr. Dotson says life at St. Andrews has been good.  He has loved the students (says they are more career oriented now), respects and appreciates his colleagues, still walks to campus from his apartment at Scotia Village and loves to look at the stars.

Theoretical physicist and 1965 Nobel winner Richard Feynman once quipped that, “Einstein was a giant: his head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground.  Those of us who are not so tall have to choose!”

Dr. Dotson appears to have chosen wisely, and for 38 years, St. Andrews has  benefitted from each dimension.

(Postscript:  Dr. John Knesel, Chair of the Department of Natural and Life Sciences, added this about Allen Dotson):  When I arrived at St. Andrews in August, 2010, one of the first professors I encountered was Dr. Allen Dotson.  He became a mentor, advisor and example to follow.  When I was appointed as Chair of the Department of Natural and Life Sciences, he continued this role as he taught me the “ways of St. Andrews,” the history so essential to understanding how things functioned here and continued to serve as a role model.  His role in this has been invaluable.  His teaching of me (and other new faculty) consisted of examples, gentle questions about plans, vision and how I intended to accomplish goals.  These gentle questions extended to queries about what I was reading, where I came from, my background, how I was becoming part of SA – all adding up to an excellent transition into this unique college setting.

   Over my time here I have seen countless examples of Dr. Dotson as a quintessential faculty member.  These include a complete love of him by alumni, his willingness, albeit retired and on a part-time appointment, to teach “extra” (example teaching calculus-based physics as a tutorial, building a variably scheduled physics laboratory to teach students in smaller groups, teaching astronomy as a general education offering and presenting at our Friday Science at St. Andrews seminar series); his willingness to chair the McNair Science and Religion seminars; his willingness to attend any and all faculty functions (faculty meetings, opening convocations, baccalaureate and commencements and seminars) and his constant presence as a scholar.

    Once, early on, and happening again and again, Dr. Dotson walked by my class and a student exclaimed, “Dr. Dotson is just so precious.”  Indeed he is.