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MIT student blogger Yan Z. '12

More thoughts on classes by Yan Z. '12

However, I did not find Matt's stuff (see blog post below this one).

Dear November, 2009: I’ve reached the age when self-discoveries are easier to find than my room keys, or the chunk of free time missing from my daily agenda, or even sources of Vitamin C. To start with a simple example- I prefer my classes the way I prefer local fire departments: fast, helpful, and hosing.

This semester, 8.07 (Electricity and Magnetism II) takes the proverbial cake for hopscotching around my criteria for likable classes. The first ten weeks or so straddled a slender line between geekishly fun and downright scary. On one hand, it’s hard to complain about a class where the professor spends 5 minutes playing the Electrostatic Video Game in the middle of his lecture slides* and then inexplicably flings his USB drive into the door using a makeshift rubber-band slingshot. (I believe he was attempting to demonstrate something about tension in field lines, but the lesson was sadly overshadowed by the fact that his USB drive looked pretty expensive.)

*All seven people in attendance during this lecture burst into applause as the Positive Charge bounced off a wall, hovered in a precarious moment of unstable equilibrium, and slowly rolled into the target. It was the most breathtaking thing I’d ever experienced, but only because I don’t have asthma.

On the other hand, the class this year was taught backwards, starting with the gnarliest subject in the entirety of 8.07: dipole radiation. Have you ever seen a dipole radiate? The thing spews out enough math to educate a third-world village.


(This is what happens when I stop taking photos. It’s supposed to be a graphical representation of an oscillating dipole, alright? As I always say, MIT admissions values tolerance.)

On the third hand, there was a warm and cherished moment in 8.07 when the curriculum abruptly leaped from relativistic dipole radiation to Coulomb’s Law. Did you know that I’m probably one of the few people in human history who learned the Li√©nard–Wiechert formulation of potentials for a moving point charge before learning electrostatics? By the way, the problem set for that particular week was far more bipolar than dipolar: one question was along the lines of, “Find the force on a line charge in a uniform electric field, but use the Maxwell Stress Tensor and do a spherical integral over infinity only after converting your basis vectors into Cartesian. Also, while you’re solving easy problems using the hardest method imaginable, carve a turkey using toothpicks, but only after you convert your toothpicks into a small wooden flotilla.” The next question was like, “Find the magnetic field due to a current-carrying wire. HINT: Use Ampere’s Law!!!11 HINT #2: The circumference of a circle is 2*r*pi.”

“What about your other physics classes?” you ask. Well, let me prelude my good-humored kvetchfest by remarking that I have nothing to complain about and that it took quite a few yardsticks of imagination to come up with the following criticisms. It’s also worth mentioning mention that I’m only 35-50%* serious here: please keep in mind that all of the following are, at worst, only as mildly painful as getting punched in the kneecaps by someone wearing mittens. If you want to understand the true heartstabbing pain of MIT, you can also keep in mind that I will be repaying tuition loans for the next ten years. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go chug a bottle of aspirin.

(*Even outside of the esteemed blogging profession, I’m around 55% serious at best. By “at best,” I of course mean, “at funerals.”)

-8.03 (Vibrations and Waves) is a perfectly reasonable class until you realize that it’s full of propaganda, just like television (whose existence is due to none other than VIBRATIONS AND WAVES. Coincidence? I think not). According to 8.03, vibrations and waves created light, made the world in six days, rested on Sunday, and then invented evolution, thereby ensuring that thousands of unsuspecting children would continue to buy Pokemon cards (the most expensive of which contain reflective holograms, whose properties are due to none other than VIBRATIONS AND WAVES. Coincidence? I think not.). The first one may actually be true, but I refuse to accept the premise that waves are mankind’s only remaining hope for salvation. I mean, otherwise, Barack Obama wouldn’t have won the Nobel Peace Prize, right?.

No OCW am I, but here’s my stab at summarizing the 8.03 course material:
-A wave on a spring is a wave.
-A wave on a rope is a wave.
-A wave in a pipe is a wave.
-A wave on a transmission line is a wave.
-A wave in vacuum is a wave.
-A wave is also called a vibration sometimes.

Did I tell you the name of this class, by the way?

-8.033 (Relativity): I will heartlessly say that 8.033 makes electricity and magnetism look like clumsy squash players stumbling around in a ballroom full of elegant, waltzing kinematics, firstly because I hate playing/eating squash and secondly because I think this is some sort of metaphor or whatever. In the first half of the course, each lovely transformation and kinematics equation was tastefully attired in immaculate thought experiments before its initiation into the polite society of established physics. Yet as soon as E&M clodhopped into the room, dripping with murky math and shod in raggedy logic, the exalted sophistication of relativity spiraled down the metaphorical toilet of terrible curriculum design. You could hear the flush as soon as we started transforming Coulomb’s Law in like 32939 different scenarios of relative motion between source charge and test charge. Introducing E&M by applying the force transformation laws to Coulomb was like smearing dirt over the brilliant connections between E&M and Special Relativity. Why not link the fields to the intrinsic properties of space and time, and then deduce how they must look to an observer moving at relativistic speeds, such as Lance Armstrong? To be fair, we probably discussed this in recitation for about 20 minutes.

Lance Armstrong, that is.

(Just kidding. I can assure you that we learn more about cyclic permutations than cyclist permutations in 8.033 recitation.)

Also, the flavortext (yes, flavortext) on the Problem Sets is about as straightforward as the nonexistent Star Trek episode written by Richard Nixon. Example:

Buckethead and Ry Cooder, two guitar masters who are completely unrelated and look
nothing at all alike, meet at Antone’s, the famous blues club in Austin. Ry is scheduled to play
the first one-hour set, with Buckethead immediately to follow.
To while away the time, Buckethead hops in his motorized chicken coop and drives west at con-
stant acceleration a = (5=3) £ 106 m=s2 for precisely 30 minutes (as measured by his dashboard
clock) – at which point he slams on the breaks, stopping the coop almost instantly, turns around,
and drives back, again at constant acceleration a. After precisely one hour on his clock he arrives
back at Antone’s, slams on the breaks again, and walks in for his set smack on time. Importantly,
all along his trip, Buckethead maintained a perfect soulful C on his monster Jackson King V.
Meanwhile, back at Antone’s, Ry plays an awesome set, closing with his classic version of Woodie
Guthrie’s Vigilante Man” (as recorded on Into the Purple Valley”). As the song ends, perfectly
on time, he holds out the last note, keeping it ringing until Buckethead walks back in at the end
of his trip.

Note: some details about the real world you should neglect in solving this problem:
¬≤ The earth is round. Let’s treat it as flat and infnite { buckethead’s coop always stays in
contact with the ground.
¬≤ Since a is roughly 20,000 g, the acceleration would crush any human inside the coop. Don’t
worry, Buckethead is not human.
¬≤ To stop the coop on a dime would require absurdly wonderful breaks. Yes, it’s an awesome
chicken coop.

Dare I venture any further comment? You know that something’s awry with your problem set when the hardest part of the question is figuring out that it’s a question.

Anyway, the moral of the story is that physics can be crushing, but there’s nothing to worry about. Buckethead is not human.

38 responses to “More thoughts on classes”

  1. joemill says:

    oooh, these classes made me bleed years back but loved them anyway…. smile

  2. Elias ('14?) says:

    So…would I be forgiven if I still didn’t understand what the question was? It seems like a nice story though, given that one of the performers isn’t human.

    Oh yes, hi Yan! You walked through my chess game the other day in Clam – I (So…would I be forgiven if I still didn’t understand what the question was? It seems like a nice story though, given that one of the performers isn’t human.

    Oh yes, hi Yan! You walked through my chess game the other day in Clam – I (<— prefrosh) didn’t get an opportunity to tell you I enjoyed your writing (on the blogs) there (in Clam) though…mostly through a combination of chess thoughts, chess thoughts, and an excess in the use of ellipses while writing. Anyway, you get the point!

  3. Elias ('14?) says:

    …am extremely annoyed by the inclusion of HTML tags for style as part of script. I accidentally used the HTML comment tag as part of my post, and subsequently COMMENTED OUT MY POST. T_T

    Anyway, that was supposed to continue that I was a prefrosh, and didn’t get an opportunity to tell you that I enjoy your writing on the blogs. (Which I have now rectified)


  4. Ka-Wiz says:

    I’ll have to concur with Anonymous above on the premise that you are indeed awesome. I lol’d hard.

  5. Name says:

    Bahahaha, that was wonderful.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Now excuse me while I do a barrel roll.

  7. namz says:

    i miss the pictures and food in this entry :( even though their is an involvement of turkey and toothpicks wink

  8. Yan says:

    Am I allowed to be bitter about these first two comments?

  9. namz says:

    ummm…yeah… :O

  10. Yan says:

    No problem. Just checking.

  11. Anonymous says:

    i loove your blogs, they are so hilarious. i have your rss feed on my igoogle homepage. but sadly, i have never been able to take advantage of it to post “first!” on the blogs.

    is that a better comment? smile

  12. makesense says:

    Now maybe one of those Mech. Eng. classes could work on building such a coop… smile
    Your classes sound so entertaining/challenging!

  13. Reena says:

    I remember someone exclaiming about that chicken coop problem over at ET last… er, whenever I was there. It made me wonder if physics psets generally get more ridiculous as the course numbers get higher, or if that’s just Figueroa.

    P.S. Andala was good! Their hummus surprisingly lived up to the menu description (:

  14. Anonymous says:

    Haha… I heard my friend in 8.07 complain about having to use the Maxwell Stress tensor for easy force calculations.

  15. mi. says:

    awesome! ur breadth of knowledge never ceases to amaze me! Buckethead and Ry Cooder anyone who is familiar w/these monsters and creates a p-set allegory deserves a thumbs-up… yea that’s right thumbs-up ^_^

  16. Kir says:

    8.033 psets on OCW are fine. but think about it… einstein’s ix+jy hair cut and crazy countenance is hovering over the hole subject, encouraging professors to put their most eccentric foot forward.

    p.s. no OCW you are, but thats definitely the climax of the course.

  17. Anonymous says:

    lol, you are awesome

  18. 8.033 is my favorite OCW!

    The ‘your theory here’ is epic. And nothing like ripping apart whatever physics you’ve learnt. The math kills though.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Hi, Yan. i Love reading your blogs and was wondering what are some authors/books that are your favorites or ones that influenced you the most in your writing?

  20. sepideh says:

    @anonymous above: good question…I wonder too.

  21. Yan says:

    @ Anon:

    Thanks! Nabokov and David Foster Wallace (although nothing alike) are probably the two authors that I envy most, stylistically. I’m not sure that I’ve absorbed much from either of them, though.

    Lately, I think my writing style has picked up some of the nuances of Left Handed Toons ( At least in my formal writing assignments, this is an unfortunate development.

  22. bukhosi says:

    off all the blogs that i read i alwaysget some humour from u

  23. sepideh says:

    E&M….my WORST nightmare….!!!! relativity….(speechless), majoring in physics…I want to get retired at 25!

  24. m says:

    Yan wondering how u determined Buckethead was not human? Is this an assumption based on his extreme guitar “beastness” or purely based on his otherworldly apperance?

  25. buckethead is not human because he is half chicken.

  26. Dan says:

    Oh geez, it’s ironic that I read this post today. This afternoon, I just realized the difference between physics as a hobby and physics as a major as I proved why some Radial Wave function is a solution of the Schrodinger Equation. I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I was pretty happy when the math worked out a page later. I’m sure I will experience that sort of euphoria all the time if I get accepted to MIT.

    Thanks Yan

  27. Yan says:

    @ Reena:

    Glad you could make it to the dinner! Rumor has it that some other prof. wrote the horrendous pset question. Rumor suggests that his name begins with A and ends with “llan Adams.

    @ Elias:

    You’re right, I don’t think I actually posted the question part of the question. I’d check for you, but there’s been enough comments on this thread so far that scrolling up is getting to be a pain. Yep. MIT is all about hard work.

    By the way, kudos to wall chess. The board needs to get more use.

    @ Anon:

    Would it happen to be Anton or Thomas? Yeah, we had a nice laugh over the pset today. I think I’m going to publish a memoir called, “Good Times with Ampere’s Law.”

  28. Elias ('14?) says:

    I’ll say! We (and by we, I mean a kindly observer armed with glue) had to re-glue the white king, and queen, and a black pawn! Talk about out of use!


    However, post gluing (and falling off of one Velcro square (which was quickly glued back on)), the game was quite fun – unfortunately, there’s no good Velcro GO board next to the chess one, so I was only able to play one of my favorite board games.


    Someone ought to fix that! (Except that go is horrendously complex, and would take FOREVER to put up. Oh well!)

    Except I was informed that the fun is removed from wall chess when you know who your opponent is.

  29. OP says:

    Sounds like a new internet meme: “Buckethead is not human”

  30. Yan says:

    @ m:

    I’d like to take credit for the brilliant insight that Buckethead isn’t human (it was a crucial step in solving the problem), but it was actually one of the given hints.

    @ Dan:

    What’s “euphoria” mean? Will I still get it if I get a flu vaccine?

    @ Bradley:

    My answer took a full page. The guy’s speed never exceeds C even though he’s constantly accelerating in his own rest frame! I asked prof. Adams about this in office hours, and his answer was this: the way to think about it is not that Buckethead is pushing himself forward but rather that he’s pushing the rest of the world backward. If he goes beyond C, then he sees the rest of the world moving backwards at speed C. This is impossible because the more he exerts a force on the world, the more effort it takes to accelerate it more (think of the case where an object’s mass goes to infinity as you keep accelerating it because its velocity increases to C). So the velocity of the world relative to him asymptotically approaches C, and therefore his speed relative to the world also approaches but never reaches C.

    (A better but somewhat more deceptive way to say this is that “constant acceleration” really just means that he’s exerting a constant force on the world, not that his velocity keeps increasing by 1 m/s^2.)

  31. RecursedAlum says:

    Great dipole there.

    (1) Physics is a field that fascinates me because I can only understand half of it at any given time.

    (2) Psychology is a field that also fascinates me because it can only understand half of me at any given time.

  32. Nate ('14?) says:

    That was a great post! I was laughing the whole tiem…except…I didn’t understand like 80% of the post and now I’m feeling extremely scared about how dumb I’m going to feel at MIT if I get in? :( Plz tell me that this is a normal initial reaction to most MIT psets…

  33. Bradley says:

    Answer for for the long-interesting problem please!!!
    Would the guy’s speed exceed the constant C after 1800s?
    It blows up mi mind!!!!

  34. Yan says:

    @ RecursedAlum:

    Good call. I believe the completely symmetric version of (2) would be, “I am a field that fascinates psychology because . . . etc.”

    Anyway, I’m not complaining. This ain’t Maxwell’s Equations with the monopole term.

    @ Nate:

    Yeah, no worries. I still don’t understand why Buckethead is driving a chicken.

  35. Nissi('14?) says:

    Yeah,I had to read the blog two times to understand what you were talking about.Great blog though I enjoyed it.Plz What was Dan talking about? never heard of that eqn before.

  36. tree says:

    On the fourth hand, third hands usually don’t grow on the average human being:)hahaha

    ps. Yan, I am the #1 fan of Nabokov, you can take the #2 seat.