Einstein and Relativity

Oberlin College Physics 51

Syllabus for Spring 2021

We should take comfort in two conjoined features of nature: first, that our world is incredibly strange and therefore supremely fascinating . . . second, that however bizarre and arcane our world might be, nature remains comprehensible to the human mind. -- Stephen Jay Gould

This course introduces Einstein's special and general theories of relativity, and investigates how these theories have changed our understanding of space and time. These investigations illuminate questions of how scientists approach problems and the nature of scientific knowledge.

Learning goals: Through your work in this course, you will

Aldo Leopold wrote "We speak glibly of . . . education, but what do we mean by it? If we mean indoctrination, then let us be reminded that it is just as easy to indoctrinate with fallacies as with facts. If we mean to teach the capacity for independent judgment, then I am appalled by the magnitude of the task." The ultimate goal of this course (and, I hope, of all your other courses) is to develop your capacity for thoughtful, informed, independent judgment.

Teacher: Dan Styer, Wright 215, 440-775-8183, Dan.Styer@oberlin.edu
home telephone 440-281-1348 (9:00 am to 8:00 pm only).
Instructions for meeting me are given in the link above.

Course web site: http://www.oberlin.edu/physics/dstyer/Einstein

Prerequisites: This course does not assume any background in science. High school algebra and geometry will be used as needed without apology.

Text: D.F. Styer, Relativity for the Questioning Mind. You may purchase this text, or use this link.

Tutoring: Tutors are available for this course at no charge through Oberlin College's Center for Student Success. Contact them if you would like a tutor.

Format: This course is taught remotely. All work will be submitted through Oberlin College's Blackboard course management system. Class meetings will be on Tuesdays and Thursdays starting at 10:00 am (Eastern Time) through this Zoom link. I begin each class by discussing questions raised at the previous class, then I go through some new material from the textbook, and finally I call for questions to be answered at the following class. I will record the classes and post them at the course web site. If you understand the material well enough from the reading, then you don't need to listen to the "new material" portion of the class.

Grading: This is a first-half-of-the-semester half course, graded on a Pass/No Pass basis. It is a designated "Quantitative and Formal Reasoning" course. To receive credit, you must (1) react to classes regularly, (2) satisfactorily complete the weekly assignments, (3) pass a final examination, and (4) complete a project.

(1) How do you react to classes? By the end of the day (11:59 pm Eastern Time) each date when class meets, submit through Blackboard a sentence or two reacting to the state of your knowledge concerning relativity. I will use these reactions to plan the next class and the future path of this course. Your most useful reaction would be a specific question: for example, "Just because one type of clock slows down while it's moving, why does that mean that all types of clocks have to slow down while they move?" Other possible reactions would be indications of general interest ("I'd like to learn more about the pole-in-the-barn paradox.") or general questions about course material ("Why should I care about this stuff, anyway?").

The ability to answer questions is an important skill, and your work in college, including this course, gives you lots of practice to develop that skill. The ability to ask questions is an equally important skill -- Einstein said "The important thing is not to stop questioning" -- but college work typically affords less practice in this skill. This "react to classes" assignment is one way to develop your skill in question-asking. There are 13 classes for this course, and you must react to at least 10 of them.

(2) The weekly assignments are due every Thursday before the end of the day (11:59 pm Eastern Time) and are set and graded through Blackboard. You may rework an assignment as many times as you wish before the deadline. In working an assignment, you may consult any written or on-line material, or you may consult your friends, but you must complete the assignment yourself . . . you may not, for example, copy answers from someone who has already done the assignment.

Because of the large number of students in this course, I can't allow exceptions to make up for missed assignments. To pass the course, you must earn at least 70% on the assignments as a whole. (I appreciate that for some of the assignments you might be sick or for other reasons not at the peak of your abilities. That's why the 70% cutoff is set so low.)

(3) The final exam will be given through Blackboard on the date of the last class meeting. The final will have a two-hour time limit (most students complete it in less than half an hour), and you are not allowed multiple attempts. Nor may you consults friends, on-line material, nor any written material save your own notes that fit on both sides of one 8 1/2 by 11 inch page of paper. (You may wish to print out this summary sheet and add your own notes.)

To pass the course, you must earn at least 50% on the exam.

(4) The project investigates some facet of Einstein or relativity: it could be (a) a solved problem from the textbook, or (b) a brief (three to six page) essay, or (c) an artistic/literary project examining some aspect of relativity or its history.

(a) These textbook problems are meaty enough that solving one of them would qualify as a project: 7.6, 13.2, 13.4, 13.5, 13.6, 13.7, 14.3, 14.4, 15.4, 15.5, and any of the problems in chapter 16 except for 16.6 and 16.9.

(b) If you write an essay, it may involve Einstein's life, or relativistic physics, or the history of our knowledge of relativity, or it may explore the effect of relativistic thought in, say, literature or sociology. Among the fine essays submitted in previous years are:

I prefer focused, analytic works to generalized, descriptive ones. For example, if you choose to write about the life of Albert Einstein, don't write about his whole life. That would be the subject for a one-thousand page book, not a three-page essay. Instead focus on his childhood, or his years in Switzerland, or his time in Princeton. Alternatively, examine Einstein's views on pacifism, socialism, or Judaism.

(c) Finally, your project may be an artistic (music, dance, sculpture, or painting) or literary (prose, verse, or drama) work inspired by the course material. It must be submitted through Blackboard --- perhaps as a photo or video. If you do choose such a project, then be sure that it contains enough relativistic content to warrant earning credit for a physics course.

It is also possible to combine these three categories of projects: One year (I am not kidding) a student submitted a series of poems that worked through the solution of problem 16.4.

Unless you use one of the textbook problems mentioned above, you must submit to me a one-paragraph prospectus of your project two weeks before the last class meeting. The project itself is due at the end of the day (11:59 pm Eastern Time) on Friday, 19 March.

Tentative course schedule: (with assigned readings from the textbook Relativity for the Questioning Mind)

2 February The Paradox of the Mirror [chap. 1]
4 February Experiments about Light [chaps. 2, 3]
9 February Time Dilation [chap. 4]
11 February Length Contraction; Clock Synchronization [chaps. 5, 6, 7]
16 February The Case of the Hungry Traveler [chap. 8]
18 February He Said, She Said [chap. 9]
23 February Speed Limits [chap. 10]
25 February Speed Addition [chap. 11]
2 March The Twin Paradox [chaps. 12, 13]
4 March Puzzles and Paradoxes [chap. 14]; Prospectus due
9 March Puzzles and Paradoxes [chap. 14]
11 March General Relativity [chaps. 17, 18]
16 March Curved Spacetime [chap. 19]
18 March Final Exam (no class)
19 March Project due



Web site for NOVA program "Einstein's Big Idea".

Exhibit concerning Einstein and relativity at the American Museum of Natural History.

Interviews A and B with Alan Lightman, author of Einstein's Dreams.

Measure the speed of light using chocolate and a microwave oven.

Links concerning black holes

Falling Into a Black Hole by Andrew Hamilton.

Relativity Visualized: Space Time Travel by Ute Kraus and Corvin Zahn.

Virtual Trips to Black Holes and Neutron Stars by Robert Nemiroff.