String Theory for Undergrads Discussion


Theres a discussion over at Peter Woit’s blog, Not Even Wrong, regarding undergraduate courses in String Theory, including a note regarding Stanford’s P153A/B courses this past year. In 2004 I e-mailed Barton Zwiebach regarding his upcoming book A First Course in String Theory, which was based on notes from his MIT “String Theory for Undergraduates” class. He sent me a copy of a preprint of the text and suggested that Stanford would be an ideal place for a similar class. As someone interested in theoretical physics, I went to our department’s undergraduate studies committee to propose a class, and, over the course of that year, Shamit Kachru reluctantly agreed to do a trial run.

Shamit decided to split the class into two quarters (Stanford’s academic calendar is based on ~10 week quarters), the first class was an introduction to quantum field theory taught out of Zee’s Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell. The second class was taught out of Kachru’s own hand-written notes (now available in the Stanford Physics Library) because he thought Zwiebach’s text moved at a too much of a glacial pace. The course didn’t quite follow the course catalog description (which Woit mentions on his post) and the majority of the people attending lectures were graduate students (as well as Andrei Linde, who sat in on the second quarter).

I took the first course and found it fun–though my group of senior undergraduates in the class had already taken a more formal quantum field theory course. Shamit has a knack for teaching and tongue-in-cheek humor (it was appropriate that string theory grad student and Stanford Daily Op-Ed writer Navin Sivanandam sat in). Zee’s book is a delight to read and the course (along with the P152 high energy physic class) would be wonderful preparation for Peskin’s QFT course for those interested in theoretical physics.

I opted not to take the second quarter, but a good mix of theory graduate students (phenomenological and stringy) sat in my place. Kachru roughly followed the first part of a graduate string class, following the thematic developments of Polchinski, GSW, and Clifford Johnson (the latter of whom contributed to the liveliness of the Not Even Wrong debate). It is noteworthy that Stanford does not currently have a typical string theory graduate-level course outside of the occasional “special topics” seminar.

The discussion at Not Even Wrong started out addressing the value of courses such as this that, perhaps motivated by Zwiebach’s text, present an advanced topic to an audience that does not have the background to tackle of its formalism. Stephen Shenker, the director of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics (the ITP’s website is desperately in need of a redesign since they scrapped Yonatan Zunger’s layout), didn’t think that the text adequately addressed the major themes in string theory and, hence, a student would be better off learning quantum field theory properly and then taking a “real” course on string theory (i.e. reading Polchinski). To be fair, Kachru’s course was a miniature version of this general plan.

The discussion at Not Even Wrong also brought up the point that such a class is valuable in its own right as a way to illuminate how the breadth of undergraduate physics courses come together. Zwiebach’s own seminar at MIT originated from an undergraduate statistical mechanics course were he took an aside to explain the stringy relevance of topics in statistical physics. This is, perhaps, a valid point that leaves it up to a student’s tastes whether string theory is the context in which one would like to see undergraduate topics coming together. (I found that doing research in crystal-growth-and-characterization drew from my coursework in electromagnetism, quantum mechanics, statistical physics, and even quantum field theory.) It is important to note, however, that the Stanford course was initiated by student interest rather than by ‘the string establishment’ to “corrupt our youth.”

As the undergraduate studies committee prepared for a departmental review by the school of humanities and sciences, we started brainstorming ideas for undergraduate “capstone experiences,” and the strings-for-undergrads class was suggested for prospective theorists. (Though Kam Moler also noted that the “Seminar on Theoretical Physics” was also very successful in this capacity when Lenny Susskind had undergraduates present papers.)

I’m no longer sure if Physics 153A/B will be offered next academic year, but I think the people who took the class or sat in on it found it well worth their time.

One Response to “String Theory for Undergrads Discussion”

  1. Incidentally, the lecture notes from Zwiebach (shorter than the book, and lacking some chapters of it) can be found in the emule/edonkey Peer2peer network.

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