Introductory Modern Physics

A continuation of introductory physics begun in 241 and carried forward in 242. The course focuses on special relativity and quantum mechanics. It includes an experimental exploration of these topics, and basic scientific computational skills are introduced. 1 unit. Meets the Critical Perspectives: Scientific Investigation of the Natural World lab or field requirement. Meets the Critical Perspectives: Quantitative Reasoning requirement. Meets the Critical Learning: FRL requirement. Meets the Critical Learning: SA requirement.

Prerequisite: Physics 242.

Degree requirement — Critical Learning: FRL, Critical Learning: SA, Critical Perspectives: Lab, Critical Perspectives: Q

1 unit — Burns, Krishnarao

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Modern Physics delves into contemporary developments in physics. Students will explore the concepts of relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, solid-state physics, and the physics of elementary particles while uncovering the mysteries and controversies of physics.
Modern Physics
Within the opening decades of the Twentieth Century, our understanding of the Universe was radically and profoundly changed. During this period, increasingly precise measurements of phenomena occurring at high speeds precipitated a radical revision in our conception of the nature of space and time which is encapsulated in the principles of special relativity. At the same time, experiments which probed shorter and shorter distance scales illuminated the structure of the atom and the properties of even more basic building blocks of matter. Even more importantly, these experiments revealed that at the most fundamental level, these building blocks behave according to the bizarre and often counterintuitive principles of quantum mechanics. In this course, we will focus on these “modern” developments in physics – including special relativity, quantum mechanics, nuclear physics, solid-state physics, and the physics of elementary particles – which transcend the “classical” physics of the previous era. Along the way, we will grapple with quantum uncertainty, discover why Einstein's famous relation E = mc^2 is really so important, and investigate why chemical bonds form. Without exception, none of these developments was the result of a single scientist working in isolation, but rather the product of a community of physicists – in conjunction with chemists, mathematicians, and astronomers – who were influenced by each others' work and who interacted in ways very similar to the way physicists interact today. Out of these interactions emerged a coherent theoretical picture which has been robustly confirmed by experiment. However, it's easy to forget that during the period in which this picture was being developed, things were far from coherent! Indeed, in this course, you will not only learn the physical principles underlying quantum mechanics, relativity, and the other topics we'll be covering (and have a chance to confirm some of them experimentally), but along the way, you'll also get a glimpse of how this body of scientific knowledge was formed – complete with its controversies, false starts, and perplexing experimental surprises.
As the 19th Century drew to a close, Newton’s account of mechanics and Maxwell’s exquisite description of electromagnetism seemed to cover all the laws of physics. All that remained was to detect the elusive ether that was understood to carry electromagnetic waves and perhaps to give an explanation of the radiation from a hot object (a “black body”). In 1905 Einstein provided the simplifying but shattering explanation that there is no ether and that light travels at the same speed relative to every observer. This premise destroys the intuitively appealing notion that time flows at the same rate for everyone, everywhere – now even the sequence of events can change depending on an observer’s frame of reference. In that same year of 1905, Einstein made a leap that had even greater consequences when, building upon Planck’s explanation of blackbody radiation, he proposed that light (and all electromagnetic radiation) occurred only in packets of energy called quanta. In other words, something thought to be a wave is actually a particle (or collection of particles). De Broglie proposed the converse of this idea: things thought to be particles (electrons, nuclei, baseballs…) behave like a wave. From this "wave-particle duality", physicists inevitably developed quantum mechanics, the rules that must be applied to small-scale phenomena. The consequences of these rules include Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle and the even more disturbing property of indeterminacy. By 1925 a physicist trained only 30 years earlier could easily be bewildered by the new orthodoxy emerging in physics.
Electron diffraction


Term Block Title Instructor Location Student Limit/Available Updated
Fall 2022 Block 3 Introductory Modern Physics Topic Details Shane Burns, Dhanesh Krishnarao Barnes Science Center 219 32 / 8 06/04/2023
Fall 2023 Block 3 Introductory Modern Physics Shane Burns, Dhanesh Krishnarao TBA 32 / 9 06/04/2023
Report an issue - Last updated: 06/04/2023