From the faculty advisor: Welcome to Spring 2018

Ever wondered what the faculty advisor looks like?
Ever wondered what the faculty advisor looks like?

It’s a pleasure to welcome all of you, our 95 enrolled physics majors, back to UNL for the Spring 2018 semester. I’m not really one for New Year’s resolutions, but I am hoping that this year I will write to you a little more frequently with my thoughts about learning physics and how the department faculty can help you with that. Our new email announcement format, introduced last year, will make communication more convenient.

This semester I’ll be teaching a section of PHYS 212, the first calculus-level course in electricity and magnetism. I’ve taught this course a number of times before, so it doesn’t require too much preparation on my part, but still, at the start of every term I do have to review the material so I can get my head into the physics and hit the ground running. This year I was struck by how quickly we build up the concepts in the course. On the first day, we begin with the idea of electric charge, a concept that has been around for a few centuries (if poorly understood at first). But by the end of the second week, we’ll already be discussing Gauss’s Law, a very abstract concept that can serve as a gateway into field theory. (Professors love Gauss’s Law, students often not so much, but give it a chance, please.)

PHYS 212 has the reputation of being a hard course. I know that I found it hard when I was a student. (Taking the course in the middle of winter might make it seem even more so.) But why? One reason is that this course promises a much more abstract approach to understanding the physical world than PHYS 211 does. Concepts of mechanics are often very visible and visceral, made real by bodies moving through space. Electromagnetism is much more often invisible, seen through indirect action.

But beyond that, these concepts can be hard just because they are new. You are being asked to look at the world in ways that you haven’t before, and that is always a challenge, one that you’ll encounter in other physics courses, and hopefully everywhere at the university. Should you be worried? Absolutely not. First, all of us who have been physics students faced similar difficulties with new material, but with time, we mastered it. You can too, with effort and time. And you have a lot of resources available to help you. Talk to your classmates; they are facing the same challenges and coming at them from the same perspective as you, and together you can find new ways of looking at things. Talk to your instructors; we’re here because we want to help you learn, and we were in your shoes once. And be assured that as you continue in your physics education, the power of the tools that you will acquire will increase faster than the difficulty of the problems that you will need to solve. Learning is an iterative process, and the more times you try something, the better you will understand it.

I wish you all of the best for 2018 as you prepare to look at the world in new ways and take on the challenges that come with that.