Physics 51 Now Optional

Share story

Physics 51 in the Fall of 2021

In the middle of the 19th century, James Clerk Maxwell fused electricity and magnetism in a logical structure that explained everything from electric motors to light, and made possible the future technologies of radio, television, fiber-optic communications, and a wide swath of innovations that we all take for granted.

With apologies to the transformative insights of Darwin, Marx, Lovelace, Mendeleev, and countless others, Richard Feynman claimed that from a historical perspective, “The most significant event of the nineteenth century will be judged as Maxwell’s discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.” Recent events in Texas illustrate just how dependent we are on the technology that flows from Maxwell’s equation. These fundamental laws—the underpinnings of modern technology—are the focus of Physics 51/51A/51M. They establish the rules that constrain Hyperloop transportation systems, the efficiency of electric vehicles, wireless power transfer, smart grids, and countless other innovations—both those that already exist and those that anyone may care to dream up. To truly innovate in engineering, you have to understand what Nature allows and what Nature forbids.

But don’t just take my partisan perspective; consider what Bill Gates had to say recently to the question, “What should a young person do if they want to fight climate change?” He replied, the “biggest contribution” they could make was studying physics, chemistry, the economy, and the history of the industrial sector. We invite you to join us as we study the fundamental principles of electricity and magnetism in Physics 51 in the fall.

In the new core curriculum, these courses are no longer part of the required coursework for all students at Harvey Mudd College. As the College transitions to this new core, we have decided to make Physics 51/51A/51M optional in the fall of 2021. It remains a required course for physicists and chemists, including joint math-physics and joint chem-bio majors. Prospective engineers are advised that “Engineering recommends but does not require Physics 51 (E&M).  The content is valuable to understand the fundamental science underlying electrical circuits and waves.  The class also will help you develop maturity formulating and solving problems and applying tools from science and mathematics.  E&M is essential for certain disciplines in Engineering, such as renewable energy, optics, and wireless circuits. Some engineering electives, such as E157, will require E&M as a prerequisite.”

We expect enrollment in some version of Physics 51 when E&M is optional will be significantly reduced; we would like to schedule in the way that most closely matches the interests of rising sophomores. In consequence, we will be surveying current frosh next week, asking them via ranked-choice voting to express their preferences and likely choice(s). Different versions of Physics 51 have arisen in recent years to accommodate different levels of mathematical background and, I daresay, levels of interest. Physics 51A was developed for students with strong backgrounds in vector calculus and who were interested in a more theoretical approach than we employ in Physics 51. Physics 51M was developed to provide more explicit instruction in the techniques of vector calculus that underpin E&M, which means that it omits much of the optics that appears at the end of Physics 51 and Physics 51A. The version (or versions) of Physics 51 that we offer in the fall will depend on the information we glean from this survey. It (or they) may be hybrids of the recent versions. To help you make informed decisions, there will be an opportunity to discuss relevant background in recitation for Physics 24(A) on Monday, 3/23, with the survey available on Tuesday, 3/24. Stay well, get vaccinated when you can, and we invite you to join us (on campus!) in studying E&M in the fall. [Well, if LA allows.]

p.s. Any sophomore who has not yet passed Physics 51 will not be required to re-enroll or make it up at another institution.