Remarkable people: John S Denker

Scientist and pilot

John S Denker is both a scientist and pilot. Now, I have no doubt that there are many scientists who are pilots, and that many of them combine these interests in a variety of ways. So in what way is he “remarkable”?

Experts as communicators

Sometimes experts dedicate considerable effort to communicate their understanding for the benefit of people who are much less knowledgeable. It is probably important that this happens, because it is the main means by which substantial topics are understood in any depth by other people. Without the experts’ thorough knowledge of a specific subject area, very little understanding is likely to be transferred.

Usually, a non-expert in any field is only likely to be able either to repeat conventional wisdom or to provide such a superficial coverage that it is difficult to understand the level of significance to be attached to it.

On the other hand, it is often difficult for experts in most fields to bridge the gulf between their understanding and that of their students.  Many of them find it difficult to remember how little they once knew about their subject; so, to learn from many experts, it is necessary for the audience to have a reasonable understanding of the fundamentals of the subject before they can expect to gain a deeper insight.

A small number of very knowledgeable people are able to place themselves in the context of people who are beginners in their field and to communicate some fundamentals in wonderfully simple ways.

Scientific pilot

One of them is John S Denker. His explanations of some of the fundamentals of aviation are beautifully simple, they are described in altogether different terms from conventional explanations and they are not complicated as one might expect from a career scientist.

John Denker followed a very successful career path which is described here with his, mainly physics, publications described here. (His career was as a practising scientist, and he is not the  “John S Denker” who has written about science and religion.)


But it is his explanations of “the perceptions, procedures and principles of flight” which are a joy to read.

It is particularly refreshing that he debunks conventional myths with no apology. For example, the classic elementary explanation of wings producing lift due to their asymmetric profile is thrown out on its ear!

You’ve probably been told that an airfoil produces lift because it is curved on top and flat on the bottom. But you shouldn’t believe it, not even for an instant.

Presumably you are aware that airshow pilots routinely fly for extended periods of time upside down. Doesn’t that make you suspicious that there might be something wrong with the story about curved on top and flat on the bottom?

Another common myth which pervades disciplines far beyond aviation is also given short shrift:

There is a saying that “practice makes perfect” – but that’s wrong. It’s wrong in at least two ways.

For starters, the truth is that practice makes permanent. If you’re practicing the wrong things, practice is worse than nothing.

Read much, much more in his whole wonderful publication “See How It Flies”.

By John Lewis

2 thoughts on “Remarkable people: John S Denker

  1. Hi, I’m writting from Turkey.
    I’m a teacher and, have learnt so many things from Mr. Denker’ s ‘See how it flies’.
    I will be retired soon and one of my plans for future is to translate his work into Turkish and put it into my web about aviation (my other will) for enthusiast youngs.
    I kindly expect you to help me in geting touch with him.
    I will ask him to give me permission.
    Thanks in advance,
    Cengizhan Musabali


  2. Hi Cengizhan,

    Thank you very much for your comment. It is good to hear that you have learnt a lot from John S. Denker’s excellent “See how it flies”.

    Would you like to share more about your areas of interest and what you have learnt?

    I am sure that there are many other people who would like to learn from his work, in many parts of the world, and in many languages. As I have no contact with him, my first suggestion would be to write to him at the email address at the bottom of the page about him:

    Please reply to let me know if I can be of further help.

    Best regards,
    John W Lewis


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