Description of Course Goals and Curriculum
Classical Mechanics with emphasis on the Lagrangian method. The underlying physics is Newtonian, but with more sophisticated mathematics introduced as needed to understand more complex phenomena. Topics include the formalism of Lagrangian mechanics, central force motion and scattering, rigid body motion and non-inertial forces, small and coupled oscillations and Hamiltonian chaos. The course is intensive but rewarding.
The goal of this class is primarily to give you a different perspective on the Newtonian classical mechanics that you should be familiar with from school and/or freshman year. To this end, the course reformulates mechanics in terms of objects called Lagrangians and Hamiltonians through the use of calculus of variations (don’t worry if you’ve never heard of any of this, nobody has). Professor Giombi then uses these as a jumping-off point to reintroduce topics from previous physics courses such as central force motion, oscillations, and rigid bodies. You will become intimately familiar with using these to solve problems, and should be able to, as Giombi puts it “write down a Lagrangian in your sleep”.
Learning From Classroom Instruction
There are two primary ways learning operates in Death Mech. One is information transfer, which is almost exclusively done through Giombi’s lectures. The other is concept reinforcement, which is achieved through often long, always challenging problem sets and, to a lesser extent, reading the textbooks. Problem sets are meant to be done collaboratively.
Lectures in PHY 205 are fast-paced and often conceptually and mathematically challenging. However, they are the primary method of information transfer in the course, and it’s imperative that you take good notes. You will be referring to them often during the problem sets. Fortunately, Giombi lectures very clearly, and his accent isn’t a lot to overcome. After lecture, you should have a conceptual understanding of the topic, but don’t worry if some details are missing or you aren’t sure how to apply it--that’s what the problem sets are for. Be prepared to fall far behind if you miss even one lecture. The course is such that every lecture builds upon the previous one, particularly before the midterm. It definitely helps to at least skim the relevant pages in the textbook before lecture, and realistically many students painstakingly read every page when doing the problem sets anyway.
There are also problem solving sessions and office hours. The former is useful to further reinforce the concepts, but many students find this may not be worth their time to attend, as this course takes up a lot of student’s time. The latter is useful if you and your study group are completely stuck on a problem, as Giombi will likely walk you through the problem.
The textbooks used in Fall 2014 were the comprehensive Thornton & Marion, and the smaller Landau & Lifschitz. Problem sets are from TM, however the presentation of the content is often less than perfect. LL will complement your understanding of the overarching concepts, often explaining them in a clearer, more concise way.
Learning For and From Assignments
Problem sets are long and difficult. That’s the intention, so don’t worry if you find them as such. At the same time, though, do not underestimate them. They are intended to take at least 10 hours (per the registrar page and often will take closer to 15-20 overall).
Their main function is to reinforce the concepts learned in lecture by applying this knowledge to actual physical situations. To this end, the questions will often be harder than those you’ll encounter during exams. Students stress the importance of finding a group to work with, preferably with four or more people. You’ll be able to bounce ideas off one another and see how other people approach the problem. This will improve your overall problem solving skills as well as help you to complete the assignments. You’ll likely have to comb through the books in order to find the relevant parts for the question, so this too will help you to more thoroughly understand the course’s material. After you finish a problem set, you should be able to complete it (at least in principle) on your own, otherwise you will have a hard time when it comes to exams.
Exam questions are meant to be done individually, so they will be substantially easier than homework problems. There are two midterms and a final. Make sure to THOROUGHLY read the lecture notes before exams. On the midterm, one of the three questions was about a topic that was discussed for about 20 minutes during one of the lectures. Most people thought it was irrelevant, so very few people correctly answered question. Read Landau & Lifschitz (the smaller book) before exams, as it often presents content in a clearer, more concise way than Thornton & Marion. Go through the problem sets and make sure you really understand the methods used to solve each type of problem. This is especially useful since you probably did them in a group.
Along with the textbooks, you will often make extensive use of the Internet throughout the problem sets. Lecture notes from other universities will often explain things in different ways that will solidify your understanding of the material. Don’t be averse to using the Internet – after all, the point of the problem sets is to help you truly grasp the course’s content. You should take advantage of any resource you can find to achieve this end.
In my opinion, however, the most valuable of these resources is your fellow classmates. Use them, pick their brains, help them (you’ll end up helping yourself in the process almost every time). This course is not intended to be tackled individually. If you attempt to do this, you’re not taking advantage of everything at your disposal, and are therefore putting yourself at a huge disadvantage relative to everyone else in the class as well as harming your own understanding of the content.
What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection
If you’re taking PHY 205 (often called Death Mech), you fall into one of two categories: Either you’re almost certainly a physics major or you’re doing the Engineering Physics certificate. You’ve probably heard horror stories about this class – stories of impossible exams and 50-hour problem sets. Fear not, this isn’t wholly true. Most of these are at least a little exaggerated. In fact, even if you are a physics major, you can still get away with taking Baby Death Mech (PHY 207). You won’t go as deeply into the material as you will in PHY 205, however. It’s a matter of personal choice how much you want to engage with the material.
Above all, though, Death Mech will teach you to think like a physicist and prepare you extremely well to solve problems you might encounter in the core classes (Quantum, Thermal, or E&M) as well as those posed during independent work. Ultimately, the description “intensive and rewarding” given on the official course offerings page is accurate.