Quantum Mechanics
as a General Audience Course

This page written by Dan Styer, Oberlin College Physics Department;
last updated 25 January 2000.

A paper contributed to the winter meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers;
Kissimmee, Florida, 19 January 2000.


My thanks to the Sloan Foundation, which supported early stages of the course development described here.


Can general-audience students learn and use the core concepts of quantum mechanics (probability, interference, and entanglement) through a rigorous but non-technical approach?

Initial Goals

In 1989, I began teaching a course on "The Strange World of Quantum Mechanics" to general audience students at Oberlin College. My goals in developing this course were:

In short, I wanted to distill the essence of quantum mechanics into a rigorous, though non-technical, course. I did not want a watered-down, superficial, "gee-whiz" course. This is why I used the term "course for a general audience" rather than "course for non-science students". My aim was for a course that, while populated mostly by students not majoring in a science, would be both informative and challenging even to the rare physics major who took it.

I knew that this was an ambitious goal and I thought it most likely that I would fail.

Course materials

It was rocky going the first few years. Much of the published material at this level was (and is) aimed at those who wanted to debate overarching philosophical principals of various interpretations without first digging into the specifics of what they were interpreting. There was no reliable source for thoughtful, penetrating exercises.

I used the following two sources to good effect:

A third source, which promises to be just as useful, has seen publication just this month:

However, in the end I had to write my own book, which was published last month:

The course emphasizes spin-1/2 systems. It uses entanglement and and the Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen paradox to show that classical ideas must be wrong. Then it develops quantal ideas using interference experiments and the sum-over-histories formulation. A more detailed overview of the course can be obtained by perusing the book's synoptic contents.

[Mine is not the only possible rigorous but non-technical approach to quantum mechanics. You could use polarized light or continuum particle motion as your canonical system. You could put more emphasis on quantization and less on entanglement and interference. You could tell the story along more historical lines, but let me warn you that, in this last case, you will have a hard time telling the story without mentioning energy, and I have found this to be a mistake in teaching physics to general-audience students: first, these students do not know what a physicist means by "energy", and, second, they think that they do.]


Did I meet my initial goals?



What has been done -- by myself and by others -- is just a start. There are many courses and a galaxy of approaches to teaching special relativity to a general audience in a rigorous yet non-technical manner. The same could be true for quantum mechanics. This work is nationally important and personally rewarding. I invite you to join in.