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+.