February 19, 2013

"Columbia professor strips down to underwear in bizarre lesson to help baffled students learn quantum mechanics."

"'In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have to strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain, and start over again,' Prof. Emlyn Hughes said. Against a backdrop of 9/11 and Holocaust images, he remained in a fetal position as two people dressed as ninjas blindfolded stuffed animals."
"Um, nothing you’ve learned in your life up til now is in any way going to help prepare you for this.... I’ve been tasked with the impossible challenge of teaching you quantum mechanics in one hour."

56 comments:

Oso Negro said...

And yet conservatives are termed "anti-intellectual."

Paddy O said...

And somewhere in the land, a cat dies.

Peter said...

Please. Just show the math. If you can't understand the math then you can't understand it.

MadisonMan said...

That's a big lecture hall. I'm sure the students are getting their money's worth in that class.

Nonapod said...

I'm not sure about other people but watching bad performance art doesn't strip me "raw" or "erase all the garbage" from my brain.

Brian said...

"I’ve been tasked with the impossible challenge of teaching you quantum mechanics in one hour."

Well, one thing's for sure: it ain't gettin' any easier because you spend the first 10 minutes dicking around.

Gabriel Hanna said...

He's doing it wrong. Bizarre human antics prepare no one in any way for the bizarre antics of the universe.

Nobody understands quantum mechanics, they just get used to it. Classical mechanics is no different, no one really understands that either, they just got used to it.

This is really obvious to people who teach physics. Students don't come in with no notions of physics. They come in with wrong physics, but plausible and good enough in many situations. Before you can teach them correct physics you have to confront them with the impossible consequences of the flawed physics they already believe.

Teaching quantum physics to people who already know classical physics is very similar. Teaching it to people who don't know classical physics might be easier, if they had high math skills. People without math are going to get basically double-talk and hand-waving no more plausible than they'd get on Star Trek. They'd not learn enough to know nonsense when they heard it, and when Deepak Chopra or someone talks about vibrations and positive energy it's going to sound the same.

Shanna said...

My econ professor pulled out some tighty whiteys to illustrate elasticity of demand. He wasn't wearing them at the time, though.

Mitchell the Bat said...

You ordinarily want to inject your students with a nausea-inducing serum to get the full Ludovico effect.

Strelnikov said...

Reminds me of The Big Bang theory episode where Sheldon gets drunk just before giving a speech to a room full of scientists and ends up without pants. His final line, which we're not shown the video of, "And here's Uranus!" Life imitates Sheldon Cooper.

Kevin said...

The dude was just pushing for a National Endowment for the Arts grant. No reason why physicists can't join in the fun too.

LarsPorsena said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
LarsPorsena said...

The student's time would be better spent watching Leonard Susskind's 'Theoretical Minimum' on Youtube.

Beth said...

I found the students' bewilderment more important than the professor's "antics".

Uncle Pavian said...

As the noted television physicist, Dr. Leonard Hofstadter observed, "The guy is one lab accident away from being a supervillain."
This is one consequence of granting lifetime employment to people who would otherwise be living in a refrigerator box under a bridge.

jacksonjay said...


So Professor Althouse, describe your secrets when tasked with the "impossible challenge" of teaching Engel v. Vitale! Please?

Brian said...

In seriousness, I read it as the lecturer announcing at the outset that he does not hold himself responsible for teaching his subject matter. It's impossible, after all, so really he might as well just waste everyone's time.

I'd've opened my laptop and re-registered for a different section right then and there. The material is too difficult to pile on the extra challenge of a prof who doesn't care.

Nonapod said...

One of the big problems with learning quantum physics is that, unlike other areas of science, it focuses on probabilities instead of knowns (of course the math with all those equations in crazy bra-ket notation is pretty nuts too).

Palladian said...

Come on, Althouse, you can't tell me that when Kois v Wisconsin comes up in class, you don't have the urge to strip down to your knickers, flash some lascivious pictures and recite a sex poem!

edutcher said...

If I were sending a kid to Columbia, I would be seriously reconsidering my investment.

PS Certainly glad Madame La Professeur doesn't use this method to teach how SCOTUS arrives at some of its more bizarre decisions.

furious_a said...

Remember, kids, you're taking on non-dischargeable debt for the privilege of attending this lecture.

chickelit said...

If quantum mechanics hasn't profoundly shocked you, you haven't understood it yet.
~Niels Bohr

Nevermind, is he filling buckets, or kindling fires?

Scott M said...

If you look at a quantum physics professor, you alter how naked he is by the mere act of the observation.

Cedarford said...

Gabriel Hanna alludes to the problem, and I sort of understand the professors attitude that quantum mechanics is just so counter-intuitive to newbie students that are grounded in known natural law events and some classic physics that they would be best off starting as an unformed fetus. With a purged mind and no preconceived notions on the math, probabilities and conclusions of where quantum mechanics takes us...


I took a course in quantum mechanics in engineering. Most engineers don't pretend to truly understand it, but it is core to the technology we use in many fields.

I still can't wrap my mind around it - all I could do at the time was to say that far better minds than mine have shown it is so. That the math works. That events may not be certain in each circumstance, but over a thousand or billion events that probabilities show it is so.
And it has advanced all sorts of scientific and engineering progress. From cosmology, to cell phones yet to be use when I took my class.
And whenever you doubted...it was best to go to the math and the simulations run extrapolating the math for a quantum scenario. The math was right..

Scott M said...

I still can't wrap my mind around it - all I could do at the time was to say that far better minds than mine have shown it is so.

How many of those better minds were Jews?

Lem said...

Put the lesson aside... if you could for a minute.

Why are students reacting in such a childish manner?

Instead of pretending? to adsorb in rapture? the ingenious? way the teacher is attempting to teach them.

Answering my own question... I'll venture that teachers, lawyers, doctors are no longer viewed by the public at large with any more awe than they do a pet.

So the teacher tries to tap into that language of entertainment... what rh calls the 'soap opera' pervading everything to try and make an impression.

Hagar said...

A long time I had a freshman physics class (or was it chemistry?) like that. A distinguished professor performed magic tricks for us in a 350-400 seat auditorium, I think once a week or so, and the actual teaching was done by grad student "teaching assistants" in "lab classes."

Shanna said...

All that getting undressed and redressed was a little Mr. Rogers. I was always sort of fascinated by his changing sweaters and shoes after walking in the door.

It's a beautiful day in your neighborhood...

SteveR said...

I don't think that kind of stunt is necessary in pointing out the problem. Einstein struggled with it. When I was in college that was the least of my reasons for getting into the fetal position.

Tricia OTOH.

Ann Althouse said...

"Come on, Althouse, you can't tell me that when Kois v Wisconsin comes up in class, you don't have the urge to strip down to your knickers, flash some lascivious pictures and recite a sex poem!"

Kois isn't in my casebook, and I've never covered the topic of obscenity in con law... until this year, and the topic comes up today!

I'll let you know how it turns out.

Zach said...

Quantum mechanics isn't really that hard. Most of it is just algebra, and simple algebra at that. People think it's confusing, because they come in expecting everything to be tiny bowling balls, and that's just not right.

Once you adjust your expectations, it's actually very intuitive. People reason with their hands, they draw pictures, they reason from analogy. If that isn't "understanding," I don't know what is.

Dust Bunny Queen said...

Lem asked sarcastically...I assume: Why are students reacting in such a childish manner?

Instead of pretending? to adsorb in rapture? the ingenious? way the teacher is attempting to teach them


I would hazard a guess that the students didn't buy into this kabuki theater because they are engineering and math students. Those students tend to be more reality based, even when trying to grasp the unreal aspects of quantum mechanics. Probably also contains a high percentage of Asperger's students who tend not to "get the joke".

The others who may have some semblance of economic reality are thinking "WTF! I'm paying money for THIS?!?"

edutcher said...

Ann Althouse said...

I'll let you know how it turns out.

Meade will be lookout.

Mary Beth said...

When Hughes pulled out a microphone, one female student mistook it for a firearm. “He has a gun,” she said before realizing her mistake.

A few more news stories about guns and people will be imagining them everywhere.

rhhardin said...

The joke is that Pauli was such a theoretical physicist that he could ruin an experiment just by being in the same town.

William said...

I'm having enough problems with gravity and have no wish to delve into quantum mechanics, but permit this untutored observation. What are the probabilities of a physics teacher undressing at the lectern? Pretty damn small, I'd say. Doesn't this presentation in some ways undermine the whole concept of quantum mechanics..

madAsHell said...


Heisenberg and Schrodinger are speeding in a car and get pulled over...

Heisenberg is in the driver's seat, the officer asks "do you know how fast you were going?" Heisenberg replies, "No, but I know exactly where I am!" The officer looks at him confused and says "you were going 108 miles per hour!" Heisenberg throws his arms up and cries, "Great! Now I'm lost!"

The officer, now more confused and frustrated orders the men outside of the car, and proceeds to inspect the vehicle. He opens the trunk and yells at the two men, "Hey! Did you guys know you have a dead cat back here?" Schrodinger angrily yells back, "We do now, asshole!"

sparrow said...

Looks like the Professor is getting the attention he is so desparately seeking.

Jason said...

This professor is on to something.

Astro said...

What a clueless dick-wad.

If you don't know how to teach an intro to quantum mechanics, grab a copy of 'Mr Tompkins in Wonderland' and let George Gamov show you how it's done.
What an emabarrasment to Columbia U and to the Physics Department there.

Christy said...

MadAsHell, hysterical.

Don't know about now, but every physics professor I had in the 70s was weird. This doesn't strike me as that odd.

n.n said...

He should begin the lecture with an explanation that quantum mechanics is a model which demonstrates limited skill in describing observed effects. This is an unavoidable consequence of a system which is incompletely characterized and unwieldy. He should explain why this limitation is inviolable, and why a probabilistic model is exploited to compensate for our lack of knowledge and access, but is sufficient to realize good correlation with physical phenomenon.

Instead, he beclowns himself. Instead of demonstrating respect for his students, he teaches down to their level. This is not the mark of a good teacher. His arrogance betrays his ego.

Sigivald said...

So, he's a Misfits fan?

Gabriel Hanna said...

@n. n. why a probabilistic model is exploited to compensate for our lack of knowledge and access

I'm afraid this is 100% wrong.

If quantum mechanics were a probabilistic model for things we don't know, its predictions would be totally different and contradicted by experiment.

Titus said...

Althouse loves to get stuff from the East Coast.

Always East Coast linky winkies.

She's such a wannabe.

I know it's because we are libtards and crazy and shit but still lots of linky winky.

Hardly any Alabama or South Carolina linky winkies?

You should do a tally by state how many each has received-with the exception of Fist Fry Land though.

Bruce Hayden said...

This is fun, and esp. the joke about Heisenberg and Schrodinger. I took it many years ago, but it never seemed that hard, but maybe because I had a math major, and was used to "let's pretend". The science has advanced a bit though - not sure we worried about spin, but definitely I think not about charm and color.

Kid is taking the class right now as a physics major, and it is apparently for the class a lot of work - more like the sort of class I think that engineers take - with 8 hour homework sets, etc. Not the sort of work you are supposed to have to do one's senior year.

Gabriel Hanna said...

@Bruce Hayden:Not the sort of work you are supposed to have to do one's senior year.

Huh? He's not going to Chico State or something? Because there certainly was no such rule when I was a senior in college. And there is none now--though quite a few students have tried to convince me there is such a rule.

EMD said...

So, he's a Misfits fan?

Yeah, I wondered what they have to do with Quantum Mechanics.

chickelit said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bagoh20 said...

Too bad Professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. didn't do that. That would be fascinating.

Smilin' Jack said...

"I’ve been tasked with the impossible challenge of teaching you quantum mechanics in one hour."

Hee...I don't blame this guy. This sounds like the kind of bonehead physics course that's required for pre-meds. I TA'd for a course like that in grad school...made me determined to never, ever get sick.

bagoh20 said...

" and the topic comes up today!

I'll let you know how it turns out."


Wear clean underwear. Mom warned you about this day.

bagoh20 said...

"Quantum Harmonic Oscillator" was my porn name back in the day.

Christy said...

Wonder what stunt he'll pull when they get to Monte Carlo calculations?

Rusty said...

madAsHell said...
at 10:44

Thread winner!

n.n said...

Gabriel Hanna:

I didn't say we don't know. I stated that our knowledge and access (or skill) is limited. It is.

Quantum mechanics is a limited skill model of physical phenomenon. It's an imperfect estimator of physical behavior. We use probabilistic math to compensate for our lack of knowledge and the unwieldy nature of the system within observational frames.

Meanwhile, we are attempting to unify our knowledge and skill to better correlate with both physical evidence and theoretical predictions.