Friday, September 4, 2015

Here's Where the Fun Begins

Hey guys. Remember me? Yeah, I haven't done any writing (fiction, blogging, or otherwise) in quite a while due to life being somewhat chaotic of late. I'd like that to change, so here's a quick blog post just to make sure I haven't forgotten how to type.

So I'm almost done with my first week of class, and I have now been to (or watched) at least one lecture for all of my classes. In the order in which I did so, here's a brief summary of said lectures followed by some general commentary. Man, this sounds exciting. I wish it were possible for Statcounter to track the exact paragraph in which my readers decide to leave the page.

Monday morning I had Quantum Physics I, which is an introductory course in quantum mechanics. Intro QM courses often seek to get students to develop some intuition for the quantum realm, which is quite counter-intuitive compared to the well known land of blocks sliding across incline planes. To develop this intuition, professors have students solve the Schrodinger equation again and again and again until their dreams are nothing but operators and wavefunctions.

To that end, the textbook we're using is Griffiths, which is apparently the text almost all intro QM classes use. Page one of that book writes down the Schrodinger equation and simply plows ahead from there. My professor thinks this is actually kind of a dumb way to go about things, so we're beginning the semester with the story of how quantum mechanics came to be.

Now, having been a science dude for quite some time, this is a story I've heard a lot. I'm getting some math to go along with it this time, but in general the story of quantum mechanics goes something like this:

Near the end of the 19th century, the kingdom of physics was at peace. Two centuries earlier, the father of physics, the great Sir Isaac Newton, had discovered the Stone of Counting, Calculus (this is a really funny joke), and used it to tame the very moon itself. Later, Maxwell forged together electricity and magnetism to bring light to the world. And Boltzmann conquered heat with entropy. Plus maybe some other things happened in the intervening two centuries.

But then evil blackbody radiation from the quantum realm brought about the ultraviolet catastrophe. Using classical thermodynamics, physicists predicted that hot objects would emit an infinite amount of energy at low wavelengths. Oh no! But then Planck saved the day by creating oscillators that only emitted and absorbed radiation in discrete chunks. Forced to obey a Boltzmann distribution, these oscillators were too few in number at low wavelengths to bring about divergent infinities.

Yet this was a false peace. Where did these quantized oscillators come from, and why did they only act in multiples of Planck's constant? Tune in next time to find out. (That's as far as we got in lecture. The rest of the story involves the photoelectric effect, emission lines, and some other stuff, but this post is already 8 paragraphs long and I'm only on my first class. Maybe I'll write a children's book about quantum mechanics.)

Tuesday morning (I have another class on Monday, but it's a discussion section and didn't meet the first week) I had Philosophy of Physics. This class is taught by a Distinguished University Professor who got a PhD in Mathematical Physics several centuries ago but then decided to go into philosophy for some reason. It turns out this class is mostly going to be talking about the "weirdness of quantum mechanics," which should make it a nice complement to that other class where I'm just going to "shut up and calculate."

Weirdness, though, is not about how maybe we're all really connected and you can change the world just by looking at it and other quantum woo like that. To this professor, the weirdness of quantum mechanics arises from an SAT-like analogy. Relativity is to space-time as quantum mechanics is to information. That is, Einstein taught us that space and time aren't what our intuition leads us to think they are, and QM does the same for information. Information, which has roots in probability theory, works differently than we think it does and the consequence is that quantum stuff can be correlated in ways that classical stuff can't. I think this is going to be pretty interesting.

Both my quantum classes were prefaced with a quote from Feynman about how nobody understands quantum mechanics. My QM professor thinks this isn't really true anymore and that the results of QM speak for themselves, whereas my philosophy professor thinks we might be getting close to an understanding via thinking about information theory.

Right after that I had Ancient Philosophy. I'm taking this class mostly because I need a history of philosophy credit for my philosophy minor, but also because I want to learn about some of the lesser known ancient Greek philosophers (Pre-Socratics, Stoics, Epicureans, etc.). And the text is chock full of readings from/about those philosophers. It was a shame, then, to learn that the instructor will mostly be teaching us about the moral philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Yeah, that's good stuff. But doesn't everyone know that Plato's utopia is a dictatorial city-state run by wise philosopher kings? Sigh.

After a morning of philosophy came Observational Astronomy, which is the next required course in the astro sequence. This course is less about what's out there in the universe and more about how we come to learn about what's out there. We'll be studying optics, image processing, celestial coordinates, statistics of signal and noise, and how CCDs work. The biggest chunk of this class grade-wise is some observational projects where we have to take data from the observatory and process it into something useful and meaningful. That's pretty awesome.

Wednesday morning was another lecture of QM. Wednesday afternoon I had Solar System Astronomy. Like ancient philosophy, I'm taking this course mainly because I need a number of upper level astronomy courses to fulfill my major. I'm not super-interested in solar system stuff, but for some reason I'm trying to graduate next spring (it might have something to do with me turning 30 in a couple months...), which means I kind of have to take what's available. Also like Ancient Philosophy, I learned during the first class that this won't be a wide-ranging course about all aspects of the solar system, but will focus mostly on planetary geology, delving into the planets and other rocky bodies that inhabit our sun's domain.

After some thought, I realized I'm actually pretty okay with this. The one novel for which I have something approaching a rough draft spends a lot of time on Ceres and Europa, two big spheres about which I am not all that qualified to say much, despite the number of Wikipedia articles I've read. So, you know, getting a grounding in how these kinds of worlds really work might improve my ability to write about the things I'm already writing about. Or it just might make my infodumps that much more painful. We'll see. Either way, this course involves a term paper about some topic in solar system astronomy, so I'll definitely be writing.

Thursday was identical to Tuesday, and I'm writing this Friday morning, but Friday is essentially identical to Wednesday. The only class I haven't talked about is an online one, Theory of Knowledge. This is an intro philosophy course in epistemology. The course probably technically started Monday, but due some technical glitches (the course is being hosted on the professor's personal website, which he coded himself), I wasn't able to watch the first video lecture until Thursday evening.

During that video, the professor talked about the benefits of online courses, such as the freedom to edit lectures into conveniently sized chunks by excising parts that aren't helpful. Also during that video, the professor gave instructions on how to access his site in a video that his students could only be watching if they had successfully accessed his site.

Anyway, I'm pretty excited about this course. Epistemology is a fascinating subject to me as it acts as a bridge between thinking about the world and knowing about it. The basic stance of modern epistemology is that knowledge is "justified true beliefs." But how do we know if a belief is true? And how can we justify our beliefs? And what does it actually mean to believe something? Epistemology asks and attempts to answer all these questions, and it does so in surprisingly technical ways, invoking psychology, neuroscience, Bayesian statistics, and other pretty modern tools.

Week 9 of the course examines the philosophy of psychedelic transformations. (But it's a 15 week course, so I'm okay with a brief excursion into eye-rolling territory.)

And that about does it. This is going to be my busiest, toughest semester since I returned to school for real in 2012. I've got 19 credits of 300 and 400 level classes. Plus I'm working.

As far as general commentary, I have two things to say. The first is a pattern that may be a coincidence or may be indicative of what happens at this level. My observational astronomy, quantum physics, and epistemology classes are all prereqs for more advanced topics. And all of those professors are covering a lot of ground that is necessarily going to be somewhat outside of their precise areas of expertise.

On the other hand, my ancient philosophy, philosophy of physics, and solar system astronomy courses mostly stand on their own and don't lead explicitly to anything else. And my instructors in those classes have chosen to focus on a particular branch of each field that happens to coincide with their research interests. Coincidence? Probably not. But it does mean I may want to pay more attention to which teachers are teaching which classes when I decide to take free-standing, upper level courses.

My other comment is that most of my instructors (this semester and previously) talk pretty openly about pedagogy, which I think is a good sign. One of the stereotypes of college is the ancient professor who stares at the blackboard with chalk in hand, talking nonstop for the duration of the lecture and paying little heed to any students who might also be occupying the classroom. My college career thus far has been largely absent that phenomenon, and I suspect the apparently institutionalized focus on pedagogy is partly responsible for that. So yay.