Fall 2017 HC 441H: Relativity, the Quantum, and Reality

Fall Term, 2017-2018

Professor: Michael Kellman

4 credits

  • CRN 12807: Monday & Wednesday, 08:30 – 09:50 @ GSH 103

We will explore the profound conceptual challenges in thinking about nature brought about by two of the great revolutions in science of the twentieth century: special relativity and quantum mechanics. We will first explore each of these theories at a deep but simple level, using elementary examples. We will then explore the extremely strange things that happen when we try to put these theories together.

We will begin with readings from Newton and Leibniz on absolute space and time, itself a revolutionary idea when propounded in the seventeenth century at the dawn of modem science.  Next, we will explore the change in thinking about space and time brought about by the theory of relativity, especially Einstein’s revolutionary understanding of 1905. We will perform an intense reading of Einstein’s famous popular text on relativity, still one of the clearest expositions, and a fascinating insight into the mind of this great thinker. Then we will explore the revolutionary changes brought about in the early twentieth century with the advent of quantum mechanics, the theory of the microscopic world. We will again pursue the most basic understanding, probing the famous wave particle duality with the two-slit experiment, following the renowned treatment of Feynman.  After dealing with the perplexing situation of the notorious “Schrodinger’ s cat” the course will culminate with an exploration of the mind-boggling things that happen when we try to put the relativity and quantum theories together.

The predictions of each theory separately, and both together, have been verified in all experiments with astonishing accuracy. However, with the joining of relativity with quantum mechanics, profound and bizarre problems arise – conceptually things just don’t make complete sense! We will see that perhaps the deepest problem is what Einstein called the “spooky action at a distance” in “entangled” quantum systems that comes about when we include relativity. Quantum magic results, challenging our deepest ideas of “reality.”

This course is intended as a serious exploration of some of the most fascinating ideas that have come out of the modem scientific revolutions that took place first in the seventeenth century with the advent of Newton’s physics, and then in the twentieth century with the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics. There will be an emphasis on original texts of leading thinkers; written composition; and serious mathematical treatment that is up to the task, but at an elementary precalculus level accessible to intelligent students of various backgrounds. The needed mathematics will be introduced in a tutorial fashion, either as review or new material, depending on personal background. The course is not intended to be primarily for students majoring in science – honors college students majoring in fields other than natural science may well be the greatest beneficiaries.