I’m now halfway through my undergraduate career at MIT, which means that there are new factors informing my class choices:
1) I only have four semesters left.
2) I have to declare my concentration (every MIT undergraduate has to have a “concentration” in one of the Humanities, Arts, or Social Sciences (HASS) departments – this involves taking at least three classes within that department. The idea is to get some depth in a HASS field, and not just lots of breadth.)
3) It’s time to explore my major in more depth.
I decided way back in freshman year that my concentration would be Literature; I love the department here. Sure, it’s “small” compared to what you might find at a big liberal arts institution, but that in no way detracts from the professor quality, either in research or teaching. All it seems to mean is that class sizes for the advanced seminars are tiny; students don’t really take advantage of them. This is fine by me. My freshman spring, I was in a seminar with TWO OTHER STUDENTS, and a professor who’s an expert on 18th century British literature. She held class in her office, and made us tea. Anyway, before this becomes an entire post about how wonderful the literature department here is, let me return to my academic plans. Plan #1: concentrate in Literature.
Plan #2: Receive a degree in Physics, because I love Physics. This is a large part of what informed my class choices this fall. Here’s the tentative line-up, from now until I graduate:
JUNIOR FALL (More about these at the bottom of the post – trust me when I say that you want to read the description of 8.13, in particular.)
8.05 (Quantum Physics II)
8.13 (the first of a two-semester sequence in Experimental Physics)
18.06 (Linear Algebra)
8.224 (Black Holes)
8.251 (String Theory for Undergraduates)
8.287 (Astronomy Lab)
8.07 (Electromagnetism II)
8.06 (Quantum Physics III)
12.400 (Introduction to the Solar System)
Plan #3: Receive a minor in Literature. This involves taking one literature class per semester from junior spring through senior spring.
Plan #4: Receive a minor in Astronomy. This involves taking the astronomy lab class senior fall, and an introductory solar system class (or some other Course 12* class) senior spring.
*Earth, Atmosphere, and Planetary Sciences
If you’re interested, here’s more detail on the classes I’m taking this fall:
8.05 Quantum Physics II
A step up (in rigor, perhaps?) from 8.04 (Quantum Physics I) which I took last semester. I’m nervous; there’s only one exam in this class before the final, and I hear from older physics students that it’s very, VERY difficult. Fortunately, the professor (Prof. Zwiebach) is one of the kindest human beings I have ever met, and his office is a comfortable place to be. Pro tip: ATTEND YOUR PROFESSOR’S OFFICE HOURS. DO IT.
Also, my TA – Prof. Jesse Thaler – is a CERN particle physicist. Like Prof. Zwiebach, he’s a nice guy, but talks at about eight billion times the speed and with eight billion times the intensity. His office hours are a little more intimidating, because he really fires questions at you and pushes you to come to the answers yourself; I walked out on Monday feeling totally shaken, but having learned more in that hour than I would have in five hours of psetting.
8.13 Experimental Physics I (“Junior Lab”, or “J-Lab”)
Most MIT classes are 12 units. This class (commonly referred to as J-Lab, because it’s usually taken by physics majors in their junior year) is 18 units, and usually ends up being more. That means that one is expected to spend at least EIGHTEEN HOURS A WEEK on work. I don’t know of a better expression for this than “experimental physics boot camp”.
This class is notorious for taking a LOT of time. In partners, students conduct a series of very famous physics experiments, many of which won the Nobel Prize when they were first performed successfully. For each experiment, we analyze the data, write a paper, and deliver an oral report. When my friend Juan ’12 was taking J-Lab, we also joked that he and his J-Lab partner were married; they were ALWAYS sitting in the same spot in French House, analyzing data, at all hours of the day and night. My partner is Eric G. ’14, who’s been a good friend and pset buddy of mine for a long time (I was thrilled to find out that he and I were in the same section) – I think it’ll make a huge difference that we already know we work well together. Here’s a shout-out to him, since he’ll probably read this post at some point. Hi Eric!
Every J-Lab pair starts out with the same three introductory experiments. Eric and I will be doing them in this order:
Derive the wavelength of a light source by measuring an interference pattern, using Michelson’s interferometer setup. Heard of Michelson, of Michelson and Morley? Yeah. THAT guy’s interferometer setup.
Expose a “counter” to a gamma ray source, and make some statistical measurements of their Poisson distribution.
Derive Planck’s constant, by measuring the maximum kinetic energy of electrons ejected from a metal surface after we beam light at it.
Then, each pair does three more experiments; there are eight possible experiments, that we all got to rank. I believe they were selected by lottery? If so, Eric and I lucked out, because our three were in our top four choices. They are, in order:
21-CM RADIO ASTROPHYSICS
Using a radio dish on an MIT roof, we use the 21-cm hyperfine line of interstellar atomic hydrogen (basically: a tracer for figuring out where the hydrogen is within the galaxy) to map features of the spiral arm structure, and how it’s rotating.
THE SPEED AND MEAN LIFE OF COSMIC-RAY MUONS
We have a muon detector. The muons fly in from space, we measure their speeds, and show that these do not exceed the speed of light. We also use our data to calculate the mean life of muons at rest; basically, after they stop moving, how long do they have before they decay? All these observations and calculations help support the theory of relativity.
We use a precisely focused laser as “optical tweezers”, to apply TIIIINY amounts of force on TIIIINY objects, and measure the effects. For example, we can measure the restoring force of a stretched DNA molecule, or look at a little motor in E. coli.
Scary as this class is supposed to be, I’m bright-eyed and excited for now. Our experiments sound, for lack of a better word, awesome.
18.06 Linear Algebra
Not much to say about this; linear algebra is a useful tool for physics, so I’m taking the class.
21W.778 Science Journalism
I’ve considered a career in science journalism or science writing; regardless of what I end up doing in science, I want to communicate what I do to the public. That’s important to me. To do so, I need to get better at my science writing – so that’s one motivation for taking this class. We’ve only had one session, so I don’t have much to tell you so far – stay tuned!
Next up: my extracurricular line-up. For now, my fingers need a break. I’m actually off-campus right now, at a leadership summit in New York (hosted by Google). More about that later, too!