Letters from alumni about the physics department and the President's Page, November 19, 2003
Prof. Gubser is too modest: It is not that the Princeton physics department provides "what we think is a great major," but rather it provides an undergraduate training regimen which no other university exceeds. Contrary to the remarks of Rich Clarvit '83, what makes the program so strong is the faculty commitment to "weaker" students, of which I was a model.
Clarvit claims that "if you weren't some type of prodigy, they didn't have time for you, didn't have the patience for you, and didn't want you." Fortunately, this baseless accusation had no application to my experience.
I got into Princeton primarily, if not only, because both of my parents are alumni (Calvin Lu '74 and Florence Tam Lu '75). Yes, I scored a perfect 5 on the AP physics exam, but this test demonstrated nothing about my understanding. I promptly failed my first midterm in 105. And not "failed" in the Harvard grade-inflated sense; I ended up in the bottom 30% of the class, having scored only one-third of the points available on the test, and most of those were awarded because I managed to guess a few equations that, properly interpreted, might actually have applied to the problem at hand. I certainly lagged behind everyone else who ended up becoming a physics major, hardly the performance of a "prodigy."
Yet it was immediately following this first failure that I began to experience the true character of the department, nurturing its often struggling students, when I gloomily marched into the professor's office to reconsider my participation in physics 105 in specific, and physics in general. Surprisingly, he spent more than an hour talking to me (and a few other students in a similar bind), encouraging us not to give up at all. Rather, he counseled us to cheer up, learn to study, learn how to learn, and things will turn out in the end.
And indeed they did. I ended up changing my study habits to allocate the proper amount of time to the problem sets, and going to lots of office hours asking a lot of stupid questions. The stupid-question trend continued for the rest of my time in the department, and in every case there was a patient faculty member willing to answer even the most trivial of my queries. By the end of my senior year, I was spending half an hour each day with my thesis adviser, hardly the result of a department that does not care and has no time.
Yet Clarvit may have inadvertently hit on the reason that Princeton's physics department is underenrolled: intellectual arrogance. His remarks imply that, because he had great interest in physics and an excellent high school background, he ought to have been able to make it as a physics major. Why should he as a first-year student have been able to assess what constituted sufficient preparation for a rigorous four-year program taught by luminaries far more brilliant than he, myself, or anyone else at that stage? It is almost as though he considers success an entitlement; intellectual Marxism, if you will.
Ultimately, what makes the physics department the greatest of teachers is that preparation is irrelevant; even that from the strongest of high schools is usually insignificant compared to what is taught after the first few weeks. This is not because the subjects covered are impossibly difficult. Rather, the department, particularly in the early courses like 105, teaches the students how to think about solving problems in general, and physics in particular. Having a few extra mathematical tricks up your sleeve, like differential equations, does not help. The essential pedagogical strategy of the department is to understand what's really happening behind all of the equations, beginning in physics 105. Pushing symbols around on a piece of paper, like I learned in my high school Advanced Placement physics course, will suffice at many places as a substitute for understanding, but the Princeton physics department is not among them. Rightly so.
What matters far more than a list of high school courses one has taken is one's attitude toward tackling intellectual adversity: Put in the hard work, concentrate on solving problems (as opposed to manipulating lots of equations), and understanding and success will come.
Feeling that one is entitled to that success in the department based on experience before ever having set foot there is a strategy destined for failure. Unforunately, at places like Princeton where at least the perception of achievement is very high, no one likes to be told from the outset that they essentially know nothing, though for me, this was self-evident. But it has been my subsequent experience that thinking one is particularly smart or well-informed is only a barrier to learning new and exciting things.
Thus, it was not the self-styled prodigies in physics 105 who ended up being majors, who were the quickest to speak up in class or had some more mathematically sophisticated solution to show off. Rather, our motley crew included many people at the middle of the pack (or, in my case, dead last), who realized that the fun was not in feeling smug about our past preparation, but rather in the new ideas that were being patiently explained by a brilliant faculty, who took the time to care more about our development than any other that I have encountered. Fortunately for the present and future generations of Princeton-trained undergraduate physicists, Clarvit could hardly be further off the mark.
Peter J. Lu '00
In response to Dr. Levin,
An event such as you describe (dropping out of the physics major as a junior) would come to the attention of the departmental representative, who is a member of the senior faculty. I will not here discuss specific procedures of my department, but only say that our response would be as user-friendly as possible.
Steven S. Gubser '94 *98
I, too, was one of the "physics dropouts" back in 1974 during my junior year. At that time I was taking Quantum Mechanics taught by a young instructor (whose name I have long since forgotten) who, I was told, had a bear of a time when he took that subject and was going to make damned sure his students would do the same.
Homework problems consisted of extremely lengthy calculations (even to me, who thought nothing of spending 10 hours solving a single advanced math problem and once turned in 85 pages of equations [unfortunately with a mistake on page 15] for one freshman mechanics homework problem), at the end of which I felt I had learned nothing new that I hadn't known already. So, despite carrying an A in the class, I asked to drop the class prior to the midterm. The instructor signed off on it, but only after expressing his disdain by laughing at my explanation of why I wanted out. Fortunately, I had had the good sense to take physics out of the math department rather than the other way around. I never took another physics course at Princeton again. I look back with great fondness, however, at having had the privilege of taking my freshman and sophmore physics classes under John Wheeler. And I am now a Stanford Ph.D. geophysicist and the chairman of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists Research Committee.
So let me ask, Professor Gubser, would the physics department even today take notice of an A-average student dropping one of their classes? And if so, does it have any systematic procedure to interview these students and work with them to take positive steps to improve the class environment and persuade them to continue their pursuit of this "great major"?
Stewart A. Levin 75
In response to Rick Clarvit's complaints about the physics department, I am happy to report that things have certainly changed for the better.
I came to Princeton lacking any previous formal exposure to the physics of electricity and magnetism, and still had a terrific experience as an undergraduate physics major at Princeton. Professors were universally receptive to questions about the material during, before, and after lecture, and prompt in addressing lingering questions via email. In fact, one of the things I felt distinguished the physics department was the fact that I always felt welcome to show up at a professor's office unannounced, without an appointment, and get help with a problem set or just clarify a bit of difficult material. I always felt welcome and wanted in Jadwin Hall.
Today's physics program is very flexible, allowing students to begin the physics-bound class sequence as late as their sophomore year and leaving time for students to pursue specialized interests in biology, biophysics, geology, economics, chemistry, and astrophysics both through coursework and interdisciplinary JPs and theses.
The department also organizes incredibly helpful problem sessions where students, TAs, and professors interact to help students with more troublesome assignments. I can honestly say that Physics 105 was one of the more rewarding academic experiences I had at Princeton. In fact, it's now a hit course, and if I remember correctly, enrollment last year hit a peak somewhere around 100!
The department also brings the world of exciting contemporary research in physics to students, peppering lectures with relevant modern examples, introducing most students to quantum mechanics through a student-friendly sophomore year course, and including students in a weekly pizza lunch (at departmental expense) with the weekly colloquium speaker.
In other words, the folks in Jadwin Hall worked hard to meet my academic AND nutritional needs! I can only guess that persistent "under-enrollment"is a result of people with the requisite talents being drawn to the more transparently lucrative disciplines of engineering and computer science and perhaps also a result of undergraduate admission policies that shortsightedly emphasize breadth at the expense of depth.
Daniel Grin '03
Unfortunate as were the experiences of Rich Clarvit '83 as an aspiring physics major at Princeton, at least they provided me the solace of knowing that I was not alone.
I matriculated six years after he did, but found myself in a similar situation. Although my own public high school was far from excellent, as an entering freshman I was placed into Physics 105 instead of 103, presumably because of the high marks I earned in some basic calculus and mechanics courses I took at local universities during high school.
As I intended to major in physics and to eventually pursue a career in it, this placement seemed like a good idea at the time. Nevertheless, I quickly found myself in way over my head. I stuck it out through 104 and halfway through 203 (and it was only after the 203 midterm that anyone in the department advised me to seek tutoring) before abandoning my astrophysical aspirations and settling upon a completely unrelated major one of the few majors for which I still "qualified," having spent all of my "electives" on equally unfathomable advanced math courses instead of fulfilling prerequisites in other fields of interest.
Despite my "extra" mathematical training before I got to Princeton, I didn't know differential equations from shinola, and after freshman linear algebra I never really got much of the corequisite math I studied as a physics major. For years I wrote it off as underpreparedness on my part, but perhaps indeed, so it would seem it wasn't just me.
John W Connelly 89
In response to: Physics Department recruitment
Rich Clarit suggests that the physics department is actively recruiting undergraduate majors.
As a current Princeton applicant, my son hopes that is the case. With a committment to a career in physics research, an 800 on the physics SAT2 and 5 on the physics AP exam, broad scholarly interests and national ranking in fencing, he hopes that the physics department and the admission office are on the same page.
Stanley J. Naides 74
In response to the letter of Rich Clarvit '83:
The physics department welcomes undergraduate majors.
I was not on the faculty when Rich Clarvit's unfortunate experience with Physics 105 occurred, but I now speak for myself and my colleagues in saying that we are committed to teaching Princeton undergraduates at every level. Here's a brief sample of what that commitment means today: we have professors teaching precepts of Physics 101 and 103 as well as the more advanced 105; we have newly redesigned freshman labs and whole new courses for sophomores; and we have many undergraduates (freshmen through seniors) working with us on our research.
We are especially careful these days not to assume an unreasonable level of mathematical sophistication, or otherwise to make our courses harder than they need to be to convey the subject matter. That subject matter in fact includes quantitative tools that our undergraduates will need for the wide variety of professions they will pursue.
I urge any current Princeton undergraduate who wants to become a physics major but feels like there's something preventing them to write to me at ssgubser@Princeton.EDU. It is part of my job to ensure that we don't shut people out of what we think is a great major.
Steven S. Gubser '94 *98
So the physics department is trying to recruit undergraduate majors.
I don't know whether to say "What a joke" or if things have really changed.
I was enrolled in Physics 105 (same lectures as Physics 103, but more intense class sections) in the fall of 1979, and I struggled in the class sections despite having a great interest in physics and astronomy and having come from an excellent public high school with a strong science-oriented program.
I asked the adviser what they really expected out of students in Physics 105. I can't remember everything he said, but it finished with ".... and a working knowledge of differential equations."
Now, if you were lucky enough to have a year of calculus in high school and were smart enough to ignore all the naysayers advising you to repeat calculus at Princeton because they would cover so much more than your AP calculus class did (actually, it was about 5% more), then you were just starting to see differential equations as part of multivariable calculus as a freshman, and not showing up with a "working knowledge."
Then you would gain more extensive knowledge as a sophomore by taking Differential Equations, a 300-level course whether you took the math department version or the engineering school version.
Basically, if you weren't some type of prodigy, they didn't have time for you, didn't have the patience for you, and didn't want you. No wonder they are "under-enrolled."
I, along with so many others who thought they were interested, ending up flunking out of being a physics major. This is why Princeton is the only university in the nation where as many people flunk into the engineering school as out of it.
Rich Clarvit '83
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