Mathematical Background

As I was reading Jacques’s post about UT’s undergraduate math requirements for upper-division physics, I knew he would get at least one comment or trackback about the general watering down of standards, or some such. I was not disappointed.

The issue Jacques describes has nothing to do with watering down of standards. Four semesters of math is (or should be) sufficient to get through upper-division Quantum Mechanics. Linear Algebra issues aside, the difficulty of upper-division Quantum Mechanics stems from the conceptual issues, not the math. The problem, as Jacques points out, is a mismatch between the math curriculum and the physics curriculum.

The UT physics department could do one of three things to fix this problem.

  • Require all physics students to take, or test out of, both the Advanced Calculus class and the Linear Algebra class. Physics majors really ought to have both under their belts.

  • Forget about those two a la carte classes. Instead, require all upper-division majors to take a “Mathematical Methods for Physicists” class, designed to ensure that everyone has the right machinery to forge through their upper-division work.

  • Coordinate with the math department; adjust the mathematical core accordingly.

My alma mater used the third approach. The math, engineering, computer science, and natural science departments all coordinated closely on the base four-semester mathematics core. Individual departments could then layer additional requirements, but at least everyone had a common foundation, even the biologists and computer scientists. This solution worked great for a school with 700 undergrads, where all the professors knew each other personally, shared babysitters, and so on. It would probably work less well for UT.[1]

1. The main disadvantage of this “Grand Unified Core” approach is that it generates a great deal of whining from certain students over “taking math that I’ll never use!” Long ago, I used to sympathize with my oppressed computer science and biology brethren. But now… not so much. Over the last few years, I have run into senior developers who did not understand that ln (A + B) is not equal to ln A + ln B. And who when queried about this responded, “Look, I have a mathematical background, I really can’t explain it to you.” Professors of All and Sundry Technical Disciplines: please don’t let this happen to your graduating seniors. Thank you.

Welcome Back to TV-Land, Mr. Goer… We Missed You

Good things about Numb3rs:

  • David Krumholtz has the right mixture of cuteness and geekiness to carry the show. Not that I’m qualified to judge the former.[1]

  • The show has a nice demonstration of how random patterns are harder to construct than you might think.

  • When taking notes on his brother’s lecture on serial killer behavior patterns, Krumholtz uses the ∃ notation for “there exists.” I used to do this when taking notes for non-science classes. (“For all democratic governments, there exists a unique principle…”)

  • ohmygod it’s Natalie — I mean SABRINA LLOYD!!!!

Not-so-good things about Numb3rs:

  • The “3” is not even remotely l33t.

  • Peter MacNicol’s character is just as annoying as he was on Ally McBeal, and he makes a surprisingly unconvincing physicist.

  • “Let’s have a show about a mathematician hero and premiere it right after football. Then let’s move it to Fridays at 10!”

As a side note, is it just me, or have commercials gotten totally weird? I haven’t owned a working TV for nearly three years, and most of what I have watched has been Tivo’ed shows or shows-on-DVD. Now that I have emerged from my cocoon, it seems there is a bewildering array of prescription pharmaceuticals and other medical products available for purchase these days. Is that just CBS, or is that true for all network TV? One commercial simply instructed us to follow our doctor’s instructions when taking Zocor. But what the hell is Zocor? And why do we need commercials to remind us to take it according to instructions? We are a very strange nation.

Did I mention Numb3rs has Sabrina Lloyd? This is important, worth mentioning. Thank you.

1. Although if I did, it’s not like there would be anything wrong with that.