Chaloupka: Why physics at William and Mary?

Jan Chaloupka, assistant professor of physics, recently delivered remarks during the commencement ceremony of the physics department. We asked if he would write a piece for the News based on that speech. The following essay is the result. -Ed.

The physics department is an interesting place. Nestled within one of the top liberal-arts colleges in the country, it shares a dedication to undergraduate education with the rest of the campus, yet it is also home to a strong doctoral program. Undergraduates are not only allowed to take part in this research, they also are required to be a part of it in the form of a senior research project. At the end of each academic year, the research-savvy seniors must present their work before a faculty committee and a curious general audience. In my time here, I've served on a dozen of these committees and sat in the audience dozens of times more. Why would a member of the faculty want to spend so much time listening to undergrads? Do I want to show support for our students? Sure, but more important, I go to those talks for an entirely selfish reason. I want to learn some new physics. In every one of those talks, I invariably learn something new.

Indeed, William and Mary is a special place even-or perhaps especially-for the study of physics. Of course, this leaves the question, Why do physics in the first place? Sure, there's the fame and the fortune and the prospect of movie deals and appearances on MTV's "Cribs," but what else? Physics is, no doubt, a hard major to choose in college, and if you're willing to admit to being a physics major in public, you'll get some pretty odd responses. For example, you might hear someone say, "Physics is hard, you must be really smart," which sounds kind of flattering for the split second before the person turns and walks away! The standard answer has always been that one should study physics in order to understand the world around us. What makes physics special is that it strives to reduce nature to its most fundamental and, in fact, simplest ingredients. The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Ernest Rutherford put it somewhat harshly when saying, "All science is either physics or stamp collecting." So, really, it's the paradox of studying a field that many consider supremely challenging but that is in reality very simple. As a test of this, track down a physics major (look in the undergrad lounge in Small Hall) and ask him or her about the mysteries of quantum mechanics, the bizarre theory that Einstein found bewildering even though he helped to propose it. The student will grab a pen and a piece of scrap paper and start telling you about what happens to electrons or photons as they pass through a pair of openings in a barrier. In about 10 minutes and without a single mathematical equation in sight, you'll bear witness to what is, according to Richard Feynman, the deepest and the only true mystery of quantum mechanics.

Now, next to Einstein and Newton, Feynman may be the greatest hero that physics has ever known. The general public might remember him for his remarkable sleuthing that led to understanding the cause of the tragic fate of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. This is actually a pretty confounding association, since Feynman was not a space-shuttle designer or even an engineer. He was, of all things, a theoretical physicist, acknowledged as one of the greatest geniuses of the 20th century. You might think that a man like this, complete with his Nobel Prize, must have felt pretty invincible. Because we have been standing on his shoulders and on the shoulders of all the giants before him, it might sometimes seem like we've pretty much gotten it all figured out. But in 1955, in a report called "The Value of Science," Feynman wrote this:

"The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty damn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty-some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don't know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question-to doubt-to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained."

Feynman finishes his report by telling us that "it is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations."

So it appears that physics is a very special pursuit. It leads not only to advances in our understanding of the technical aspects of nature, but when combined with the insights from history, philosophy and liberal arts in general, it also can provide a unique perspective on our own role in the great scheme of things. The College of William and Mary, which prides itself as providing an exceptional liberal-arts education, is well positioned to nurture the interdisciplinary relationships between physics, the other sciences and the humanities.

-Jan Chaloupka