Walk into Jacob Barandes’ new class and the topic of discussion might be a philosophical exploration of whether a cat could be simultaneously alive and dead. A visit on a different day may find the lecturer filling the blackboard with a mathematical equation that stretches 20 feet before continuing on a new line, over and over. Or students might be dissecting an example of classical physics such as Newton’s laws of motion.
So, exactly what kind of class is this?
It’s officially designated Physics 137, “Conceptual Foundations of Quantum Mechanics,” but it’s really part physics and part philosophy, with a hearty infusion of math and logic.
The subject sits within a much larger field called the philosophy of science, a branch of study that examines the theoretical foundations, methods, and implications of science in the real world. In this case, Barandes is applying the class’ inquiry to quantum theory.
“This is physics by scrutinizing,” said Barandes, who is also co-director of graduate studies for the Department of Physics. “This is taking our best scientific theories, dissecting them, disassembling them, looking at the pieces piece by piece, trying to understand them and how they fit together, and the larger wholes that they form.”
Quantum theory, which explains the nature and behavior of matter and energy on the atomic and subatomic levels, is often described as the best-tested and most predictive scientific theory out there, one that makes possible precision technology such as atomic clocks and particle accelerators. Much of our modern technology — including smartphones, lasers, LEDs, and MRI machines — relies on it.
But when it comes to painting a picture of the real world, quantum theory can feel unwieldy and counterintuitive. Take, for instance, the notion of particles being in more than one place at a time.
The class aims to explore why quantum theory contains so many strange and exotic mathematical structures and seemingly illogical possibilities and to get a sense of the different ways the world would appear depending on how aspects of the theory are interpreted.