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Cool Science Class: Student Discusses Modern Physics

By James Page

Matt Columbus (far left) in a physics classroom doing the cartesian diver experiment at a women in science meeting. Photo courtesy of James Page.

As I approach I see a man sitting at his computer desk utterly absorbed in what he is reading. He is a tall and sharp fellow. His glasses lie on the bridge of his nose while his keen eyes shuffle from side to side absorbing everything it can from the Wikipedia article about Schrödinger’s Cat.

When I approach he smiles and asks me, “Want to hear a joke?”

“Sure,” I say, “I could always use a laugh.”

“Dr. Heisenberg is driving down the highway when all of a sudden he sees some flashing red and blue lights in his rearview mirror. It’s the 5-0, so he pulls over. The police officer walks up and says, ‘Dr. Heisenberg, do you know how fast you were going?’ Heisenberg replies, ‘I have no idea, but I do know exactly where I am.’”

From here I proceed to ask Matt Columbus, history, ‘12, what he has to say about his Modern Physics class, which he is he taking this semester.

Question: So, as a history major, why are you taking Modern Physics?

A: I’m an applied physics minor. I decided to take on a physics minor after reading The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan. The book and Sagan further emblazoned my passion for science and knowledge in general. I find the history of scientific development, which is partially covered in Modern Physics and Changing Views of the Universe, to be incredibly fascinating.

Question: How does Modern Physics apply to your education? Do you see yourself pursuing a career or further education in physics?

A: Modern Physics is a class that teaches a lot of the most basic concepts of quantum and relativistic physics. Conceptually I find physics incredibly interesting and this class is perfect for me because it downplays the math while teaching conceptual physics. I’m not interested in pursuing science as a career, but I love learning more about science, physics, and the universe in general. My dream job is to be a high school history teacher. However, I don’t think one should ever stop their education just because they graduated. Life is a continual learning experience and what better to learn about than how the world around us functions and works. Learning, reading, and studying physics will always be a hobby of mine. Realistically I don’t think I would be able to be the first man on Mars, but I sure as hell would want to read and learn all about it! Modern Physics is the perfect class for my interests. It provides a generalized curriculum about various subject matter ranging from quantum mechanics to space-time dilations.

Question: What is your favorite thing about Modern Physics class?

A: The old greats such as Einstein and Schrödinger used to perform thought experiments to come to their groundbreaking conclusions that helped to reshape what we knew about physics. In class Professor [Jessica] Uscinski asked the class to perform the same thought experiments and she helped us reason our way through them. I thought this was an incredible and unique way to learn. In very few classes do you get to discuss what it would be like to fly around space on a rocket ship.

Question: Many people find physics to be very daunting and challenging. Would you recommend Modern Physics to another non-science major?

A: I would certainly recommend Modern Physics to anyone whether you are a science major or not. It definitely isn’t an easy class, but you get so much out of it. I think that Modern Physics is a great class and in fact I have the perfect analogy to describe how I feel about it. Carl Sagan once said about space travel that “the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean. Recently we waded a little way out and the waters seem inviting.” Modern Physics was my first real step into a hard science class and so far I love it.

Adapted from " Cool Science Classes: Modern Physics" by James Page, Catalyst, Winter 2011.