An Interview with Paul Penfield Jr.


Oral History Ė Paul Penfield Jr.



Well, I think that covers most of the topics we wanted to cover.This interview has been very enjoyable for me.

Its nice to reminisce about these times.Looking at your website, and seeing all the old gear, like the Heathkits.I made more Heathkits than you could shake a stick at.†† This was even earlier than high school.It was in junior high.They came out right after the war.Heath started as a surplus army place in Benton Harbor, Mich.They sold surplus gear, and pretty soon determined they could put kits together and sell them, and they did a very good job at the construction manuals for putting the kits together.That was what really sold the kits.I sometimes worry about todayís youngsters because so much of the hands-on experience that people get is at the keyboard Ė and thatís one level removed from reality.Thereís something about being able to assemble gear, other than plugging it into a backplane. I think the universities are finding this also.The students that are coming are not as well prepared in hands-on experience, as was typical 20 or 30 years ago.


You mentioned earlier that you stepped down in 1999 as the Department Chair of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT.What are your current professional activities? Are you writing again?





Oral History Ė Paul Penfield Jr.



What Iím doing right now is going back to some of my early interests, not in semiconductors, but in fundamental physics, particularly in the relationship between information theory and thermodynamics.Turns out there is a very strong, yet unexploited relationship.†† By teaching this at a fairly simple level, mainly to freshmen, you suddenly are exposed to all sorts of fundamental questions to be answered.Iím having a lot of fun.This is a bit of an outgrowth of my interest in explaining things to hobbyists. It is similar because if you want to understand something, you have to write about it and try to explain to someone else, and in the end, you understand it better.Teaching to freshmen has the same attribute.††


In a funny way, my experience as a writer when I was a graduate student is serving me now because MIT has a new requirement on communication which they are instituting for all undergraduates.This is twice as intensive as our previous writing requirement, and Iím co-chair of the faculty committee which is overseeing the introduction of this new requirement.My background of having written (these early transistor articles) and actually having paid for at least part of my graduate school through the income from writing is excellent background for me.It takes a certain amount of experience to understand what this type of communication means.††††



Go To Penfield Oral History, Page 8


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