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Physics for leaders

Course gives nonscientists tools for decision-making

By Steven Schultz

Princeton NJ -- A new course being offered by the Department of Physics next fall will give nonscientists an introduction to concepts and techniques of physics that are likely to be important for future leaders in business and government.

The course, PHY 115, “The Future of Physics,” will be taught by Paul Steinhardt, the Albert Einstein Professor of Science. “Part of the course is purely about curiosity, but a lot of it has to do with physics that everyone needs to be concerned with in the future,” Steinhardt said.

''...to try a new approach to communicate the importance of basic physics to key decisions that affect our lives.''

Steinhardt, who has previously taught another physics course for nonscientists, “Contemporary Physics,” said he hopes the new course will bring even more students into the department. With 2005 designated at the World Year of Physics, “this seemed like the appropriate year to try a new approach to communicate the importance of basic physics to key decisions that affect our lives,” he said.

Topics will include the physics of energy and energy power production and consumption; the nuclear physics of reactors and weapons of mass destruction; quantum physics and its potential role in allowing powerful new computers; and the physics of waves, from light waves to tsunamis.

“The idea is to give students the basic information, but also the confidence that they can understand the important principles,” Steinhardt said. “As nonscientists, it’s not their job to calculate things, but they are going to have to judge whether ideas suggested by engineers and scientists are reasonable.”

Among the assignments in the course, students will be asked to consider hypothetical public policy decisions that involve concepts of physics, choose a solution and justify the answer. “They won’t be graded on the policy decision, but whether they have used sound physics and logical reasoning,” Steinhardt said.

The course will run in two modes: All students will attend the lectures, but will have the choice of taking a lab component or a special precept with more quantitative work. In addition, there will be a series of optional meetings for those who wish to discuss recent discoveries in areas of basic science such as cosmology and string theory.