Working prof: Bloomfield learned how things work

He'd prefer to be remembered for his popular UVA physics class, "How Things Work." Instead, his name will always be tied to UVA's largest cheating scandal, in which 158 students were investigated for plagiarism.

Two years ago, Lou Bloomfield wrote a program that captured the same six-word strings in different papers and reports. The program was so successful that Bloomfield himself was engulfed in a media firestorm.

Ultimately, 59 students were charged with violating the Honor Code. Many withdrew, and 20 were found guilty and expelled. The final cases were heard in November 2002, yet even now Bloomfield isn't ready to discuss specifics.

In some ways, it was as traumatic for him as for the students accused of cheating. "You quietly try to do the right thing, and then you have this feeding frenzy," is how he sums up the experience.

He will say that everyone should have the experience of getting too much attention for a while because "you learn a lot." And for Bloomfield, everything is a learning experience. That's why his classes are so popular.

For instance, he starts every semester by demonstrating the "story of inertia" by pulling a tablecloth off a table. He shows a reporter how it works, and explains that the trick is to do it fast to minimize friction.

Bloomfield is big on the whys of physics, and so his classes learn specifically why it's bad to put metal in a microwave, especially if the metal is thin and sharp like a twist tie or the handle on Chinese takeout cartons.

Here's another concept Bloomfield is big on: integrity. And that's why he thinks the Honor Code, as battered as it may be, is important. "On the one end, you can have a police state," he says. "Or people can behave because they agree as a community to behave. That's what I'd choose. It's so much more efficient."

The waste of time is perhaps what Bloomfield regrets the most about the plagiarism saga. He estimates the Honor cases cost him 2,000 hours. "My personal time was involved in all those cases," he laments.

Still, Bloomfield considers having to police students to make sure they aren't cheating an even bigger waste of time.

"I was trying to help the Honor system and the students maintain or strengthen the community of trust," he says.

His cheating-detecting program, which he has made available for free, has been downloaded about 10,000 times since the scandal broke.

Now he wants to focus on teaching students who otherwise wouldn't know the physics of yanking a tablecloth off a table.

Age: 46

What brought you here? The university and my first academic job

What's worst about living here? Too far from the ocean

Favorite hangout? The Café in Alderman Library

Most overrated virtue? I have a high opinion of all seven.

What would people be surprised to know about you? I like opera.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? I'd be a better listener.

What accomplishment are you proudest of? Teaching a great many young people the basic physics of their world

What do people find most annoying about you? I tell bad jokes and laugh at them.

Whom do you admire? Those who truly live by the "golden rule." Sadly, that excludes most famous people.

Favorite book? Catch-22

 What subject causes you to rant? Selfishness and the insane notion that cutting taxes solves all problems.

What thrills you about life in the 21st century? Being able to look up just about anything on the web

What creeps you out about life in the 21st century? People talking only on cell phones and the demise of face-to-face conversation

What do you drive? A hand-me-down

What's in your car tape player right now? A mystery-on-tape Reversible Errors by Scott Turow.

What's your next journey? Accompanying this year's graduating class as they walk the lawn

What's the most trouble you've ever gotten in? If you can't guess, I won't tell you.

What do you regret? Never spending enough time with my children

Favorite comfort food? A loaf of dense pecan-raisin bread with seeds on it

What's always in your refrigerator? Cold air (I would say light, except the bulb really does go out when you close the door).

Must-see TV? Turned off and unplugged

Favorite cartoon? For Better or for Worse

 Describe a perfect day. Hanging with my wife and two children at a bed and breakfast in some quiet little town that has no electricity.

Walter Mitty fantasy? Making some scientific discovery that lets me solve all the world's problems before breakfast (you said fantasy!).

Who'd play you in the movie? Keanu Reeves

Most embarrassing moment? We went to a comedy club and the comedian started talking to me. That would have been fine, except I tried to be funny back. It was a really baaaaaaaaad idea...

Best advice you ever got? My father told me to learn how to write.