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PHYSICS 104: Uncertainty and Chance in Physics
Prof. S. Teitel ----- Fall 2000


In Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are betting on the flips of a coin. Guildenstern flips his coin, and Rosencrantz calls heads or tails. If he guesses correctly, he keeps the coin and Guildenstern must flip another. If he guesses incorrectly, it is then Rosencrantz's turn to flip.

As the play opens, Rosencrantz has guessed correctly 90 heads in a row. To explain this unusual string of heads Guildenstern reasons that this may be:

"...a spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does."
Is Guildenstern's argument sound? Why or why not? And what does this have to do with the behavior of atoms in a gas?

To find the answers to these and other questions, take...

PHYSICS 104: Uncertainty and Chance in Physics

Time:Fall 2000, Tues. & Thurs. 2:00 -- 3:15, B&L 405
Instructor:Prof. S. Teitel
Prerequisites:   High school algebra; high school chemistry helpful but not essential
Restrictions:Closed to majors in engineering and the physical sciences
Coursework:Problem sets weekly
Exams:Two inclass midterms and a final

This introductory course, designed for non-science majors, will give an elementary development of the theory of probability, and show the role that it plays in constructing models of physical processes, in particular the atomic theory of gases. Rather than being a broad survey, the course will explore a few topics in depth, and try to give insight into what physicists do and how they think. Although the course assumes a prerequisite of only high school level algebra (any additional mathematics needed will be developed within the course), the course is based on using mathematics in a rigorous and analytical way -- as the language in terms of which physical processes are to be described. This is not a course for the math-phobic!

Tentative Syllabus

  • Theory of Probability (roughly 1/2 semester)
    coin flipping experiments
    definition of probability and simple computation rules
    permutations and combinations and the binomial theorem
    binomial distribution
    mean and standard deviation of a probability distribution
    behavior at large N -- the Normal distribution
    applications: random walks and diffusion, diffusion limited aggregation and fractals
  • Elementary Mechanics (roughly 1/4 semester)
    vectors - geometrical description
    Newton's laws of motion applied to linear and circular motion
    conservation of energy
    Newton's law of gravitation
    equivalence (and importance) of inertial and gravitational mass
  • Elementary Kinetic Theory of Gases (roughly 1/4 semester)
    ideal gas law
    deducing the atomic theory of matter from chemistry experiments
    chemical formulae and Avogadro's number
    deriving the ideal gas law from probabilitic mechanics
    the relation between temperature and energy
    other topics as time permits

Last update: Friday, May 19, 2000 at 3:22:17 PM.