An unlikely love affair


Most readers of this blog already know that when it comes to physics, I am faking it. I am a mathematician, after all, and even that is a bit of a stretch. So, what force of nature could convince me to take graduate level Quantum Mechanics during my years of pursuing a doctorate in Applied Mathematics?

After graduating from MIT with a degree in Mathematics with Computer Science (18C), I found myself in the following predicament: I was about to start doing research on Quantum Computation as a PhD candidate at UC Davis’ Department of Mathematics, but I had taken exactly two physics courses since 9th grade (instead of Chemistry, Biology and Physics, I had no choice but to take Anthropology, Sociology and Philosophy throughout high school; which I blame for starting a fashion line…) The courses are well-known to MIT undergraduates – 8.01 (Classical Mechanics) and 8.02 (Electromagnetism) – since they are part of MIT’s General Institute Requirements (GIRs). Modesty and common sense should force me to say that I found the two MIT courses hard, but it would not be true. I remember getting back my 8.01 midterm exam on rocket dynamics with a score of 101%. I didn’t even know there was a bonus question, but I remember the look on my friend’s face when he saw my score and Prof. Walter Lewin announced that the average was 45%. It doesn’t take much more than that to make you cocky. So when my PhD adviser suggested years later that I take graduate Quantum Mechanics with no background in anything quantum, I accepted without worrying about the details too much – until the first day of class…

Prof. Ching-Yao Fong (Distinguished Professor of Physics at UC Davis) walked in with a stack of tests that were supposed to assess how much we had learned in our undergraduate quantum mechanics courses. I wrote my name and enjoyed 40 minutes of terror as it dawned on me that I would have to take years of physics to catch up with the requirements needed for any advanced quantum mechanics course. But out-of-state (worse, out-of-country) PhD students don’t have the luxury of time given the fact that we cost three times as much as in-state students to support (every UC is a public university). So I stayed in class and slowly learned to avoid the horrified looks of others (all Physics PhD candidates), whenever I asked an interesting question (thanks Dr. Fong), or made a non-sense remark during class. And then the miracle happened again. I aced the class. I have already discussed my superpower of super-stubbornness, but this was different. I actually had to learn stuff in order to do well in advanced quantum mechanics. I learned about particles in boxes, wavefunctions, equations governing the evolution of everything in the universe – the usual stuff. It was exhilarating, a whole new world, a dazzling place I never knew! In all my years at MIT, I never took notes on any of my classes and I continued the same “brilliant” tactic throughout my PhD, except for one class: Quantum Mechanics. I even used highlighters for the first time in my life!

It was a bonafide love affair.

Thinking about it years later, comfortable in my poly-amorous relationship with Paul Dirac (British), Werner Heisenberg (German), Erwin Schrödinger (Austrian) and Niels Bohr (Danish), I realize that some people may consider this love one-sided. Not true. Here is proof: Dirac himself teaching quantum mechanics like only he could.

Note: The intrepid Quantum Cardinal, Steve Flammia, scooped us again! Check out his post on the Dirac lectures and virtual hangouts for quantum computation lectures on Google+.

6 thoughts on “An unlikely love affair

  1. I could imagine for you, being a math guy, that qm would be the ultimate use of math. Math tells the story of qm, but question is why or better yet, how?

  2. The Dirac lecture is a real find, appears to have been only recently posted.
    I heard similar lectures from roughly the same period at Harvard (with Edward Purcell introducing Dirac). They were also videotaped there and made available at the science center library, but apparently not posted to the web. Reminds me of an old anecdote I’d heard about Dirac lecturing word for word from his book year after year, found a version of it in Bernstein’s short bio of him:
    “He taught his classes in the quantum theory at Cambridge University, where he held Newton’s Lucasian chair, by, literally, reading in his precise clipped way from his great text on the subject. When this was remarked on, he replied that he had given the subject a good deal of thought and that there was no better way to present it.”

    Surprised not a word posted here about the “Johnny P” event last month? (I spent two days wandering around the campus and never once saw anyone carrying an electric drill, so convinced the header blog photo is false advertising.)

    • The experimental physicist with the drill is Emma Wollman from Keith Schwab’s lab. You didn’t see any drills because you were walking over the ground. All the fun is underground.

      As for John’s birthday celebration, I plan to get to it soon. It has been busy lately, so this post was a lighter one.

  3. Pingback: Dirac’s 1975 lectures | CfpDir.com

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