February 02, 2004

Independent cats with associated neutrino fleas

Posted by Matt

The title of this post comes from The Particle Adventure website from the Particle Data Group at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and is meant to describe charged leptons (the electron, muon, and tau). It's meant to capture that these particles have much larger masses than their associated neutrinos, and that they have a family resemblance. I think it's interesting for (at least) two reasons: it illustrates the difficulty of physics pedagogy, and it's a good example of whimsy in physics.

Physics pedagogy has been on my mind for the past few days for two reasons. The first is this blog. I work in experimental high-energy physics, and plan to do particle theory in graduate school. I would like to use this blog to talk about my research and various topics in physics that interest me, but I realize that the majority of the audience is unlikely to have much background in the subject. (If you do have more background, please comment and let me know!) Thus, I'm hoping to do a series of expository posts giving a rough overview of high-energy physics. I think that it's a subject that should be interesting to the general public (as evidenced by the success of the PBS Elegant Universe special), and it will help me think about good ways of explaining ideas to curious people who don't have a BA in physics. I think that, despite the stretched analogy that supplied this post's title, the Particle Adventure site from the PDG is a good educational resource, and I suggest you take a look if you're curious and have some time. (After all, a large number of tax dollars fund high-energy physics experiments, so it's only fair that we try to explain them to the public.) For my proposed expository posts to go well at all, I will need a lot of feedback on whether I'm comprehensible. It would also be good to know if there is an audience for such posts, so please comment.

The second reason I've been thinking about the teaching of physics is that the U of C physics department had a "town meeting" tonight to address the undergraduate curriculum. Although our department is outstanding both in terms of research and the instructional skill of our faculty (you can't really understand Fourier analysis until you've seen Bob Geroch dancing around a lecture hall), the undergraduate curriculum is lacking in a number of ways. A lot of them simply involve the ordering of the topics, or the lack of adequate training in math methods for many of the students. But one of the most glaring absences, in my opinion, is that undergraduate classes (or even graduate classes, for that matter) do not teach students about current research. I've observed that biology departments seem to be much better at this. I brought this up at the meeting today, and my criticism was more or less waved away; in fact, a number of the people present seemed to take offense. It was brought up that there is a Friday lecture series in which professors describe their research, and that students working on BA theses hear about the research of other students. I pointed out that none of these fora, useful though they may be, can compare to a detailed study of individual research papers. A very reasonable professor then noted that such a class would be difficult to arrange, as no professor is competent in enough fields of physics to do a decent survey. (It was also argued that "physics is a much more mature field than biology," but I don't really believe the argument that understanding physics research papers requires significantly more background than understanding biology papers.)

Can any of you provide me with some information about how such classes work in other fields? I can think of a couple of solutions. One is to offer different survey classes for different branches of physics; this could easily grow out of hand, and would probably require students to have fairly deep background. The other is to bring in a new professor every week or two to guide the class through a few papers in his (or her) area of research. I think this is feasible, and I think it is vital to the education of a scientist to begin reading research papers as early as possible. My own education in this respect has been mostly self-directed, and it has gone well, but there have been times when more guidance would have been helpful. I hope that some readers can enlighten me on how such classes work in other departments or at other schools, so that I can try to have some effect on the U of C curriculum before I leave the school.

As for the other interesting aspect of the quote, for now I will just point you to one of my favorite whimsical titles in physics.

Posted by Matt at February 2, 2004 11:25 PM

I would be very interested to read your exposition of HEP.

Posted by: Ryan Gabbard at February 4, 2004 02:11 PM

I for one would enjoy some more technical posts on physics. I haven't figured out the best way to write intellingently about HEP either so it would be interesting to see your approach.

I think the lack of mathematical preperation of the typical physics undergraduate blocks them from diving into the current literature. To get into the literature one most have a grounding in basic physics and most students do not get this until graduate school. And the reason most students aren't getting, say, a Jackson level understanding of E&M as in undergrad is the percieved difficulty of the 'math' in Jackson. This is mostly the fault of the secondary education system not preparing students in the sciences so that half of an undergraduate's time is spent learning what they ought to have learned in high school. Or at least that is how I see things.

Posted by: Steven S at February 4, 2004 08:28 PM

I'm glad there's some interest. I didn't claim that I have any idea how to write intelligently about HEP, though. :-) I'm sure that at some points I will do some technical posts that will be lost on most people who read this. But I'd also like to do expository posts that avoid mathematics. Unfortunately a lot of the things that I think are exciting in HEP are inherently mathematical, and I'm still trying to decide how best to present these things. Stay tuned.

As for mathematical preparation blocking people from current literature: this is often true. One of the biggest points I tried, repeatedly, to make at the physics department "town meeting" was that people simply lack training in basic math methods. Various departmental people argued with me that it's in the curriculum. When people take Jon Rosner's quantum class and complain that it is "too mathematical," though, something is very wrong, since his perspective is very much grounded in physics and not at all formal or abstract. I think that getting physics majors up to speed on vector calculus, differential equations, and linear algebra in the first year is vital.

Even acknowledging that this probably will not happen, however much I think it should, I still think there are enough well-motivated and prepared physics students that a small class of the more advanced undergraduates can learn a great deal from current literature. It could be an "honors" sort of thing, open only to those who will be able to keep up. I think that most people should be ready for this by their senior year as undergrad, though; it's a shame that people can have a BA in physics and not be able to read physics papers. Even if some of the details are lost, surely most students by that point can get at least most of the idea of the logical structure, experimental technique, or argumentation in a paper. I feel that at this point I can do that with pretty much any paper I want; some string theory papers lose me in the details, but at least I have a rough idea of what it's all about. I agree with you as well that the secondary education is partly at fault, but I don't think that universities should be able to use that excuse to push learning about real research off to graduate school.

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