Physics Thunderdome

Pardon me for talking shop for a minute, but I have a question for the group.

The subject of a coming controversy in my program has to do with the curriculum. As it exists, the four “upper level” physics courses undergraduates are required to take are mathematical methods, analytical mechanics, electromagnetism, and thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. In addition, one must take four other science or math courses numbered 300 or above, the reason being that the degree is Applied Physics, whatever that means. One choice is, of course, quantum mechanics.

It would probably not shock you (based on my research) to learn that I advocate making quantum mechanics a required course. The vocal opponent to the idea is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a solid state physicist, though her argument is simply that the lack of a QM requirement is what sets the program apart from a regular physics degree.

Now, why is that important? you may ask. South Carolina has a rule (arcane, I say) that any new degree program in the state must be “needed”. Either there should more students in the state than can be serviced by the schools currently offering it, or the program should be sufficiently different from those at other schools. Our program falls into the latter category. The original members of the program, both of whom are still here and one being the vocal opponent, framed the degree as being versatile; an AP degree allows the holder to pursue a large range of career paths. It has been explicitly stated to me that we are not in the business of churning out physics grad students, although they may do so if they choose. In any case, it’s now been four years since the program was implemented, and there’s no rule stating that we must continue to justify the program.

However, I am willing to stipulate that retaining the “Applied” label (again, there is no clear definition of the term, the one given above was chosen) is in our best interest. But is stat mech more important than quantum? The opponent argues that everyone needs stat mech, but not everyone needs quantum. To her credit, she concedes that I may feel the opposite, which indeed I do.

So I throw the question to you, gentle reader: what is more important, statistical or quantum mechanics?


2 Responses to Physics Thunderdome

  1. bpt2 says:

    Can you elaborate on the current thermo/stat mech course? Do you really do stat mech, or is it mostly thermo? Because I find it hard to imagine a stat mech class that doesn’t rely on past experience with QM. (W&M’s thermo/stat mech class came last in the sequence of required courses, I think largely for this reason.) Thermo, on the other hand, seems doable without QM and consistent with an ‘Applied’ label.

    Maryland, albeit at the grad level, had its curriculum set up in a way that gave students incentive to skip stat mech completely, while taking two courses of QM.

  2. jwambaugh says:

    I think the question of “more important” may come down to personal taste — I’d argue for statistical mechanics any day of the week but can certainly see that other arguments would exist. I think the key difference between the two subjects is that useful and interesting results can be achieved in statistical mechanics with undergraduate mathematics, whereas quantum mechanics requires more advanced mathematical techniques to really “see” results. Personally, I think undergraduate quantum is just prep for graduate quantum.

    PS: Solid-state physics is in many ways the intersection of quantum and stat mech, and is also one of the more applied areas of physics, so I would seek out the opinions of some more solid state physicists.

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