Phi Beta Cons

Physics Curriculum

Last week I posted a message from a physicist stating that the curriculum in physics is almost as bad as the English curriculum. A chemistry prof a Oregon,  Michael Kellman, wrote a rebuttal:

Frank Tipler writes in regard to the disappearance of Shakespeare requirements in English departments that “the situation is just as bad in physics departments”.   He complains that “one can get an undergraduate degree in physics and even a Ph.D.” without having taken a course in either Einstein’s theory of general relativity, or the “standard model” of elementary particle physics.
Actually, there are very good reasons for this.  General relativity and the standard model are very interesting subjects, very profound.  If you’re interested, by all means study them.  However, neither has much to do with the day-to-day world.  For most purposes, Newtonian gravity and old-style electricity and magnetism will do just fine.  One could just as well say that all physics students should have courses in superconductors, or semiconductors, or advanced mathematical methods of physics, or lasers, or biophysics, or any of a number of topics.  Most employers would say to focus on the down-to-earth topics.  The fact is there isn’t time for everything in four years, or in graduate school, with all the new areas that have opened up in the last decades.  The standard physics curriculum for undergraduates and graduates is demanding enough as it is.  In a typical program, after the freshman year, undergraduate physics students take a year of thermal physics and classical mechanics, a year of quantum mechanics, and a year of physics electives, along with a complement of labs and math and chemistry courses.
There’s enough in American higher education to worry about without making accusations about programs like physics that have mostly managed to maintain and even increase their integrity.