Shankar Invites Class To Share His Passion for the ‘Marvels’ of Physics
To hear Professor Ramamurti Shankar discuss the subject he teaches, you might expect him to be describing magnificent works of art or timeless poetry: “Beautiful,” “elegant” and “awe-inspiring” are some of the most common adjectives. It’s not until he starts scribbling equations on the blackboard that you realize his passion is reserved for that which he considers the greatest of all artists: nature.
It’s a passion that Shankar has spent the past half decade trying to instill in the 100 or so undergraduate students who sign up for “Phys 200: Fundamentals of Physics” each year — a task he clearly enjoys doing. When he became chair of the physics department in 2001 and was relieved of his teaching duties, it came as anything but a relief.
“That’s the compensation for being chair, but it turned out to be more like a punishment,” says Shankar. “I love being in the classroom.”
So when a colleague fell ill during Shankar’s second year as chair, he happily took on Phys 200. “It was great. Talking to a class with a lot of students who were not going into physics made it challenging to tell them why I think physics is interesting,” he recalls. “But that’s what I did, and I never got tired of telling them. Year after year, I seem to rediscover why I love the subject and how marvelously it works.”
While “marvelous” is another adjective that may not instantly spring to mind when describing such dense subjects as quantum mechanics and atomic physics, that’s exactly the message Shankar strives to get across to the students sitting in his classroom. “Today you’re going to make a big leap,” he tells his class on the day he introduces Kepler’s three laws of planetary motion. “You’re going to understand how the planets move around the Sun. You’re doing something of cosmological proportions.”
Armed with little more than chalk, a dry sense of humor and an infectious enthusiasm, he challenges his students to think not only about the equations themselves, but their deeper meaning.
“The fact that there are natural laws is something to marvel at, but we never do that. Instead, we say, ‘Here are Newton’s laws and here’s how to use them.’ Those simple laws, which you can write in one corner of the board, describe all celestial mechanics, including parts of the universe we can’t go to,” he notes.
Shankar’s love affair with physics began during his sophomore year in college while studying to be an electrical engineer in India. His older brother, a physics professor at Cornell, sent him a series of lectures by the physicist and popularizer Richard Feynman. “I read the chapter on relativity and verified some equations and I thought, ‘This is really remarkable.’ The left hand side and the right hand side of the equation matched, and somehow that was a defining moment. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do,’ ” recalls Shankar, the John Randolph Huffman Professor of Physics and Applied Physics.
Today, he continues to be inspired by the subject he’s spent his life studying. “Equations can be elegant and powerful. And it’s because you find it beautiful that you’re eager to communicate it,” he says. “Even in the fifth year of teaching introductory physics, the fact that these laws fit together so well and explain so much continues to amaze me — and I think I communicate my own amazement to my students. If I hadn’t felt it, they wouldn’t have felt it.”
Shankar is the first to admit he wasn’t always an engaging speaker, but participating in college debates while an undergraduate in India helped him hone his public speaking skills. “I’ve sat through lectures myself, and an hour is a very long time. You’ve got to keep people engaged, and it’s very hard to keep 100 people engaged,” he says. Luckily, he also has a razor-sharp wit that keeps the students entertained and even prompted one to gather a list of funny Shankar quotes heard in class — a list that the physicist proudly displays on his personal webpage and that includes such quips as “This problem in your book says that a physicist is hiking up the Alps. You know that’s a joke, right?” and “Today we are going to talk about rigid bodies — like Al Gore.”
He also relies on his experience as a parent to help him connect to his students. “You realize these are kids like your kids. They’ll be late, they’ll forget what you told them, they’ll put things off until the last moment, they’ll sleep in class, they’ll surf the Net — these are things you see with your own kids, and I’ve seen them all,” he says. “It makes you more tolerant.”
Eleanor Millman, now a physics graduate student at Harvard University, remembers learning about quantum mechanics for the first time while taking Phys 200 with Shankar during her sophomore year at Yale. “He really finds quantum mechanics to be a beautiful topic, and we saw that,” she says. “The mystery and elegance came out. That’s what made me want to study physics.”
Shankar stays in touch with many of his former students and continues to track their careers. “As teachers, our students are our legacy,” he says. But he’s quick to insist that he’s not trying to mold every Phys 200 student into his own image. As long as they gain a new appreciation — if not passion — for the subject he loves, he’s happy.
“It’s like going to a class on Shakespeare and coming away with the sense that his work is a beautiful creation of the human mind. You have to communicate to them why it’s beautiful,” he says. “I don’t want them all to become physics students — there aren’t that many jobs. But I want them to know why at least some of us think it’s a way to spend our life.”
“Phys 200: Fundamentals of Physics” is available on the Open Yale Courses website at http://oyc.yale.edu/physics/fundamentals-of-physics.
— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin