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A Face in the Crowd
History keeps this physicist busy

April 18, 2007
By Elizabeth Gray

For David Drabold, Edwin and Ruth Kennedy Distinguished Professor of Physics, collecting ancient relics is more than a hobby -- it is a link to the past. 

David Drabold photo by Rick Fatica"Collecting artifacts and coins is a tangible connection to the ancient, distant past," he says. 

Drabold started to collect American coins when he was eight; around the same time, he began reading history and developed an interest in the material surviving from ancient and medieval times. Today, he is a numismatist (someone who studies coins), and he collects ancient weapons and other relics. He was elected a member of the British Numismatic Society last year.

Drabold not only collects artifacts, he studies their history. He is especially interested in Anglo-Saxon, late Roman and medieval coins, though he says his interests "keep evolving." He knows all about his coins, from their place of origin and where their metal was mined, to the meaning of the sometimes obscure designs of the coins. 

The lifetime of reading and collecting has made him a helpful resource for other departments. He lectures occasionally to classes in the Classics and English departments. He even gave a colloquium in his own department as a diversion from the usual technical content of physics talks. 

Drabold teaches physics, but his office also reflects his interest in the past. Books about ancient history appear occasionally on the shelves beside the many physics books. In his spare time at home, Drabold says, his hobby of history often takes center stage. 

"I sometimes work on physics at home, but my preference is to crack a book on such exciting topics as the Anglo-Saxon invasions of Britain or the barbarian successor states in Western Europe," Drabold says with a smile. 

If his passion is history, why did he choose to pursue a career in physics? 

"When I was ten, I wanted to be a history professor," he says. "However, I thought physics would be a more practical degree, so I kept history as a hobby. Of course I enjoy my academic career as a physicist, but it is nice to maintain both interests."

Drabold's academic research in the theory of condensed matter physics takes him around the world, and gives him a chance to explore his hobby. Having given invited talks in Britain, Italy, Egypt and many other places, he also makes annual trips to the University of Cambridge in England, where he did a sabbatical in 2001. These trips are focused on research in the theory of glasses (his academic specialty) and writing a graduate textbook with a professor there. 

Drabold often visits the Fitzwilliam Museum, the art and antiquities museum of the University of Cambridge, which he says has one of the best English hammered coin collections in Europe. He spends his time there looking through coins of the world, as well as leafing through rare historic documents. 

He recalls one memorable moment on a visit to Corpus Christi College, a college of the University of Cambridge, when he was allowed to turn the pages of the oldest existing copy of the "Anglo-Saxon Chronicle." He noted the entry for 1066, when William of Normandy invaded England. 

He says, "For an Anglophile and amateur historian, it was a very memorable moment."

Elizabeth Gray is a student writer with University Communications and Marketing.


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