Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Guest Entry

First I want to thank Nabin for asking me to post in his blog as a guest. I have to admit, when Nabin first asked me to post I had no idea what to write about, but a few days ago I passed the comprehensives and I had my subject. The comprehensive tests here at Albany are a series of tests (6 in total) that test graduate students understanding of Quantum Mechanics, Classical Mechanics, Statistical Mechanics, and other assorted physical subjects. The tests are difficult and require a lot of preparation. Since they are given only twice a year, if you fail to pass the tests, you have to wait half a year to take them again. In all a PhD. Student is expected to pass 5 out of 6 tests. While studying for these tests, I spent as much time memorizing mathematical formulas and integration tricks as I did the physics behind the problems.

I understand the point of the comprehensives, so I don’t begrudge the tests, I just don’t like that they seem to be more about memorizing solutions of integrals than they are about the Physics involved. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not always the case, some questions are more physical than others, but some were just “insert into formula” and solve. Some feel that physicists should be able to solve these integrals on sight, but I say why? Why should I memorize the solutions to all of these integrals when in the real world I can look them up in seconds on the internet?

In the 1970’s, the hand held calculator became mainstream and changed the way everyone did math. Before the calculator, math required slide rules and log tables. With the calculator you could solve a problem that used to take minutes in seconds. Still, in the 70s and the early 80s students were still taught to use slide rules and log tables because of some misguided belief that if the student used the older technology to solve the problem, this made them a better student. Eventually slide rules were phased out as a new generation of teachers that had grown up with the calculator became teachers and let the relics of the past go.

So it should be now. I can find you the solution to most integrals in seconds by searching google for “integral tables”. I can find the derivative of secant or tangent, or the expansion of sine or the exponential function with ease. Why should I fail a test of my physics acuity because I can’t remember the second term of a binomial expansion during the stress of an exam. I know some might take this as just another graduate student blowing off steam, but I think there is something more fundamental going on here. The internet has put all kinds of information at our fingertips. Memorizing useful formulas is quaint now, completely unnecessary for real world problems. I’m not saying we shouldn’t work through problems, on the contrary, I think that’s where physical intuition is born, but I think memorizing formulas is unnecessary and emphasizes the wrong things.

Well, that’s a problem for the next guy (or girl) now. I’ve passed my comprehensives and I’m free to use all the resources at my disposal to get things done. A much more efficient proposition.

Roger Pink is {my friend :) } a Ph.D. student at the Department of Physics, University at Albany, State University of New York.
He is associated with the cr4 and has been regular blogger there since early 2005:
Here is what he writes about himself on
"I live and work in Albany, N.Y. I work for a vertical search engine / company directory / forum for the engineering community called GlobalSpec. I'm also working towards my Ph.D. in Physics form the University at Albany."

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