Monday, September 25, 2023

W&M prof retires after 50 years of math and two decades of flight

George T. Rublein is retiring from William & Mary after teaching at the school for nearly 53 years. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)
George T. Rublein is retiring from William & Mary after teaching at the school for nearly 53 years. (WYDaily/Sarah Fearing)

Inside a small, cinderblock room at the back of Jones Hall at William & Mary Thursday, a square chalkboard hung on a wall covered in complex math equations — a scattering of letters, symbols and diagrams.

To the right of the chalkboard, a guitar in a black case leaned up against the wall. A deflated blow-up globe sat atop a stack of papers across the room from a guitar. Near two computer monitors, paper clock face was tucked under a keyboard next to a large paper diagram showing the Earth from its North Pole.

In a leather office chair next to the computer monitors, sat the owner of the items: Professor George T. Rublein.

At 83, Rublein has been teaching mathematics at William & Mary for nearly 53 years, using the items in his office as tools to make the subject more easily understood.  

In May, he will retire, moving on from half a century in academia and leaving behind a course he created.

“I did it all and that’s enough,” Rublein said. “So, they said the story would go one of two ways… You will know when it’s time to quit, or you will quit and you will regret it. I don’t think I will regret it.”

Rublein doesn’t have any particular plans for retirement, but feels confident he made the right choice.

Outside of the William & Mary classroom, Rublein has a wife, Patricia, and an adult son and daughter. He and Patricia have a subscription to the symphony orchestra, and Rublein plays bridge every Wednesday with Unit 110 of the American Contract Bridge League.

Time at WM

Rublein said he is one of three people on the William & Mary campus born on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, adding he was raised mainly in Milwaukee.

As a young graduate student at the University of Illinois, Rublein spent about a year and a half doing graduate work in physics before deciding to pursue another angle of math. Rublein said the relationship between mathematics and the sciences and engineering is a “subtle one” and understanding those various relationships depend on one’s talents.

After finishing graduate school, Rublein made his way to William & Mary in 1966 — and has stayed ever since.

Rublein’s research and work has delved into various topics, including algebraic topology and control theory, a field of mathematics that focuses around the programs used to control devices, such as robotic vacuum cleaners.

In the mid 1990s, Rublein created a course designed for students who would not pursue math further than the general education requirements. The course came into existence after William & Mary changed its requirements for obtaining a bachelor’s degree to include a mathematics course.

Rublein calls his course the “airplane course,” but it’s officially named the Mathematics of Powered Flight. It applies simple mathematical analysis to situations involving flight and airplanes.

“The fundamental difficulty was I didn’t know anything about airplanes,” Rublein said about creating the course.

‘Enough of artificial problems’

Even after 53 years, Rublein says one math-related problem has continued to challenge him: How to teach and test mathematics in grade school through real-world problems.

For instance, some grade school STEM programs may have students build small bridges in the classroom and test their strength, but if they are not tested using mathematics as real engineers would, an important STEM component is missed.

“Well, enough of artificial problems,” Rublein said.

Throughout the years, Rublein has worked to find ways to teach math without relying on artificial problems — the airplane course uses real physical situations that students can completely understand.

With state Standards of Learning testing, Rublein hopes to develop ways students can apply their mathematical education to other situations. It’s a problem Rublein aims to continue working on through his retirement.

“What connections can a third-grader make with the small (mathematics) tools they have?” Rublein said.


Rublein does not fear boredom in his retirement.

“There’s always the news… there’s always more bridge, always more work on the piano,” he said.

Perhaps in his newfound free time, he will work to improve his piano skills, Rublein said. Unlike some retirees, he has no plans to pick up playing golf.

William & Mary has allowed Rublein to keep access to the mathematics software on campus that will allow him to continue his research.

While Rublein plans to remain involved with William & Mary, he is humble about the impact he’s had on campus.

“I think I’m just some professor who’s been here a long time,” Rublein said.

Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing
Sarah Fearing is the Assistant Editor at WYDaily. Sarah was born in the state of Maine, grew up along the coast, and attended college at the University of Maine at Orono. Sarah left Maine in October 2015 when she was offered a job at a newspaper in West Point, Va. Courts, crime, public safety and civil rights are among Sarah’s favorite topics to cover. She currently covers those topics in Williamsburg, James City County and York County. Sarah has been recognized by other news organizations, state agencies and civic groups for her coverage of a failing fire-rescue system, an aging agriculture industry and lack of oversight in horse rescue groups. In her free time, Sarah enjoys lazing around with her two cats, Salazar and Ruth, drinking copious amounts of coffee and driving places in her white truck.

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