Physics Stud of the Year: David Tong


I just have to throw in my vote for Dr. David Tong (apparently ‘professor’ is higher honorific analogous to ‘full professor’ in the states) for physics stud of the year. I think the APS administers the award.

From a student’s point of view, however, I have to give Dr. Tong my complete endorsement for the aforementioned fictional honor. Granted, I don’t keep up with any of his research, but he taught the first term of Quantum Field Theory this year and earned a prolonged ovation at his last class. I vaguely remember Professor Peskin receiving similar treatment during his course at Stanford, but this was somewhat muted by students stressing about Peskin’s notorious final exams. (“To record a satisfactory performance on this exam, please complete at east through part (e). Prospective theorists should slog through to the end [Part L].”)

Anyway, Dr. Tong’s ovation was fantastically well deserved. He presented an ideal first-course-in-QFT which, though significantly slower than Peskin’s 2004-2005 course, produces students who would be prepared to completely understand the subtleties of Peskin’s course. (I wish I could have taken the two courses in the opposite order!)

Dr. Tong’s commitment to teaching is so admirable that one wonders how he ever finds time to do any research. He produced a 140-page of meticulous lecture notes that included auxilliary topics, further commentary, and extra references. (See above link to download.) I suspect that the notes would make an excellent companion to Peskin’s text, providing a well commented road map of the first four chapters of Peskin while distilling the most important points. This is valuable since student studying QFT for the first time is especially susceptible to becoming bogged down in details and losing sight of the big picture. (Zee’s textbook also does this very well, though starting with the path integral formalism and providing more physical groundwork and much less calculation.) The lecture notes also include the one instance of the phrase ‘Wtf?’ [sic] that I’ve encountered in physics literature.

My conversations with Dr. Tong have been remarkably productive. His charisma and excitement about physics are contagious, as are his habits of taking off his shoes before lecturing. He sets aside what seems like an unlimited amount of time to talk to Part III students to address questions and concerns. It’s no surprise that he repeatedly has the most number of students doing his essays. (I sat in on his introduction to his essay topic this year, the Weinberg-Witten theorem, and was almost convinced to write on that.)

I’ve heard that there is now a Facebook group called “The David Tong Appreciation Society.” As I’m not a member of Facebook I have yet to confirm this, but I imagine any actual physical meetings of the society would require members not to wear shoes.

As a historical note, the previous “physics stud of the year” was my undergraduate advisor, who has said some of the following memorable gems:

There are no stupid questions. Only stupid students.

This step [of a proof] is clever. Anything that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own is ‘clever.’

Student: So, I hear that we don’t really understand quantum mechanics.
ST: That’s not true. I understand quantum mechanics.
Student: Yes, but I mean really understand quantum mechanics.
ST: Yeah. I really understand quantum mechanics.
Student: [growing exasperated] No, I mean… like the way I understand how a car works…
ST: You don’t understand how a car works. Cars are complicated.

So perhaps Dr. Tong is a slightly more approachable winner of the award.🙂

5 Responses to “Physics Stud of the Year: David Tong”

  1. 1 hackticus

    If Thomas thinks he really understands QM, he should try to explain it to ‘t Hooft. I’m sure he would appreciate it.

  2. If Jason really understood how cars work, he’d still be doing science or engineering, not political science.🙂

  3. I think that Tong has run the more populated QFT course in the world. More than 80 students with a regular attendance about 70 or so. This is 20 students above regular summer schools and of course a lot above regular graduate or last year undergrad courses. My only blame on you, Part III students, is that [most of] you missed Piers Bursill-Hall term on Greek Mathematics. Or is it an excuse to come back next year?

    Anyway, how to say, Part III rulez! And, could someone check if Tong has got a Guinnes world record?

  4. 4 hwasungmars

    I totally agree with you. David Tong’s lectures are one of the best lectures of my life.

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