Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Beer questions

Posted by Arjendu on May 5, 2010

I ask almost all my classes to email me questions about their pre-class reading; I read them during the morning before a class or the night before a class to help inform what I will do in class. I tell them that there are three types of questions: Google questions (facts, or a detail of some sort that Google could answer better than I could — “what is the mass of an electron ?” would be an extreme example thereof), beer questions (best discussed over a pint if the students are old enough — “how would the physics of the Universe change if hbar was imaginary?” would be an example) and the third category: actually useful to the class discussion, and that they should try to draw their questions from the third category. Sometime I have to remind students that the focus of these questions should be comprehension of the core of the material, because some of the questions are more ‘applied’ or detailed than we need to get into, but usually this serves wonderfully to prepare students’ minds for the class as well as to tell me the lay of the land.

On Monday night, there was the rare occasion — all the students in my Advanced E+M class are old enough that we could traipse down to the local pub for a couple of pitchers and some beer questions. Primary among these was a discussion, led by Ben Haynor, about the fact that there must be a special relativistic effect in gravitation because of length contraction which you can derive analogous to the argument that magnetism is actually a relativistic electrostatics effect. (Not to forget mass dilation effects, but we kept that off the table during the discussion). A real pleasure, and a wonderful way to wrap a long weekend.

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