Wednesday, May 24, 2017

What Every Physics Major Should Know?

Chad Orzel took on the silly tweet posted by Sean Carroll on what HE thinks that every physics major should  know.

Over the weekend, cosmologist and author Sean Carroll tweeted about what physics majors should know, namely that "the Standard Model is an SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1) gauge theory, and know informally what that means." My immediate reaction to this was pretty much in line with Brian Skinner's, namely that this is an awfully specific and advanced bit of material to be a key component of undergraduate physics education. (I'm assuming an undergrad context here, because you wouldn't usually talk about a "major" at the high school or graduate school levels.)

I categorize the tweet by Carroll as silly because he has no evidence to back up WHY this is such an important piece of information and knowledge for EVERY physics major. I hate to make my own silly generalization, but I'm going to here. This type of assertion sounds like it is a typical comment made by a theorist working on an esoteric subject matter. There! I've said it, and I'm sure I've offended many people already!

I would like to make another assertion, which is that there are PLENTY (even majority?) of physics majors who got their undergraduate degree without "informally" knowing the meaning of "...the Standard Model is an SU(3)xSU(2)xU(1) gauge theory...", AND..... go on to have a meaningful career in physics. Anyone care to dispute me on that?

If that is true, then Carroll's assertion is meaningless, because there appears to be NO valid reason for why a physics major needs to know that. He/she needs to know QM, CM, and E&M. That much I will give. Orzel even listed these and other subject areas that a typical undergraduate in physics is assumed to know. But a gauge symmetry in the Standard Model? Is this even in the Physics GRE?

Considering that about HALF of B.Sc degree recipients in physics do not go on to graduate school, I can think of many other, MORE IMPORTANT skills and knowledge that we should equipped physics majors. We are trying to make physics majors more "employable" in the marketplace, especially in the private sector. Comments by Carroll simply re-enforced the DISCONNECT that many physics departments have in how they train and educate their students without paying attention to their employment possibilities beyond research and academia. This is highly irresponsible!

I'm glad that Orzel took this head on, because Sean Carroll should know better... or maybe he doesn't, and that's the problem!