The Strange World of Quantum Mechanics

Oberlin College Physics 52

Syllabus for Spring 2021

Topics: This course introduces the three central concepts of quantum mechanics, namely: (1) The outcome of an experiment cannot, in general, be predicted exactly; only the probability of the various outcomes can be found. (2) These probabilities arise through the interference of probability amplitudes. (3) Probability amplitudes can be associated with two experiments done far apart from each other ("entanglement"). The ideas are developed through the example of an intrinsically simple system ("spin 1/2"), which is treated with complete rigor and honesty.

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,
home telephone 440-281-1348 (9:00 am to 9:00 pm only).
Instructions for meeting me are given in the link above.

Course web site:

Add-drop warning: If you wish to add or drop this course, you must do so via Banner self-service by 11:30 pm on Friday, 2 April 2021.

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, The Strange World of Quantum Mechanics. 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 second-half-of-the-semester half course, graded on a Pass/No Pass basis. To receive credit, you must react to classes regularly and satisfactorily complete six assignments. There are no exams. (I find it impossible to think up exam questions for quantum mechanics at this level: the questions I come up with are either too hard or else not probing.)

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 quantum mechanics. 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, "What does it mean to say that an electron does not have a position?" Other possible reactions would be indications of general interest ("I'd like to learn more about entanglement.") or general questions about course material ("Why should I care about this stuff, anyway?"). There are 12 classes for this course, and you must react to at least 9 of them.

Assignments are due at the end of the day (11:59 pm Eastern Time) on each Thursday. They are administered 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 (or your enemies!), but you must complete the assignment yourself . . . you may not, for example, copy answers from someone who has already done the assignment. I cannot accept late solutions. To pass the course, you must earn at least 70% on the assignments. (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.)

The problem assignments are an opportunity for you hone your growing quantum-mechanical skills and knowledge by applying them to specific situations. It's easy to fool yourself into thinking that you understand quantum mechanics because you can follow the readings and grasp the outlines of the theory, whereas in fact understanding comes through knowing not just the theory, but also how to apply it. (Just as everyone wants a free, stable, unified, and democratic Korea, but no one seems to know how to get from where we are now to this laudable goal.)

Course schedule:
Relevant readings from textbook The Strange World of Quantum Mechanics are listed in square brackets.

25 March Introduction
30 March Feynman on quantum mechanics (movie) [chap. 1]
[Movie available at]
1 April Classical magnetic needles (demonstrations) [chap. 2]
6 April Conundrum of projections; Repeated measurements [chaps. 3 and 4]
8 April Probability [chap. 5]
13 April Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox [chap. 6]
15 April Optical interference (demonstrations) [chap. 8]
20 April Quantal interference [chap. 9]
22 April Amplitudes [chaps. 10 and 11]
27 April Quantum mechanics of a bouncing ball [chap. 14]
29 April History of quantum mechanics
4 May Summary

Want to know more?

Do you want to continue exploring our universe after this course is over?