Our freshmen (first year undergraduate) modern physics course at LUMS is offered to around three hundred students every year. I joyfully teach this course but this time, the challenge was immense. This I took upon myself. I wanted to introduce my students, of course most of them will never study physics again, to what happens in the modern physics laboratory. Some students had little background in physics or math and the course was definitely not meant to become a ‘physics for the poet’ or ‘physics for the president’ sail through. Rather I had to keep it rigorous, mathematically accurate and enticing enough to catch the average students’ attention, who are constantly derailed by the frivolities of social mediums, the bitter reality of taking a course in a subject that will be effortlessly shred away (physics does not continue thereafter) and the mental anarchy of grades and GPA’s. Nothing works in my favor here.
But those few students in class who constantly ask me about black holes, gravity, quantum computers, string theory, radiation, spacetime, many questions sparked by the timing of Stephen Hawking’s death, and I admit most questions I could not answer, instilled in me the desire to share with my students my own fascination about modern physics. Modern enough that it could be called contemporary! So my dealings in this course bear little similarities to a course that teaches “modern physics” as a vestige of some revolutionary defining experiments in the past performed about a century ago (Geiger and Marsden, Compton, J.J. Thomson and G.P. Thomson and Milikan’s photoelectric effect); rather it spans topics that are of interest to the modern mind and the modern practitioner. The easiest way for me to choose these topics were some recent Nobel Prizes in physics.
Now hopefully my students can walk away with a deep satisfaction that they could explain how quantum computers work, why lasers are coherent sources of radiation, what makes a laser similar to a Bose-Einstein condensate, how could you cool and trap atoms with the forces of radiation, how tunneling explains radioactivity, how “nano” is different from the “macro”, why “more is different”, how “confinement leads to quantization” and finally, how energy spreads to give us the laws of thermodynamics that can drive the universe. As always, I also tried to enliven the course with real in-class demonstrations. How refreshing it was for me personally to show levitating magnets, diffracting electrons from graphite, photons bending around razor blades and the valve action of semiconducting diodes!