• Physics for health policy wonks

    “Has everyone in here seen an integral? Good. Because I didn’t have a backup plan” — Ramamurti Shankar (Word document).

    This blog’s readership is undoubtedly dominated by health policy wonks. How many could possibly also be physics geeks? Perhaps just me (BS 1994, Applied & Engineering Physics, Cornell University). I can’t think of a good reason why a health policy wonk should study college-level physics, but I’m going to blog about it anyway because Ramamurti Shankar’s Open Yale Courses in physics are too good not to.

    I already raved about Shankar’s Fundamentals of Physics I. His Fundamentals of Physics II is no less praiseworthy. Though he excels in explaining all course topics (including electricity and magnetism, circuits, optics), the best lectures are at the end, covering quantum mechanics.

    It’s not easy to make quantum fun and it’s impossible to make it intuitive. But Shankar does a superb job at explaining the origins of corpuscular-like and wave-like properties of particles. I’ve never heard or read quantum illuminated so clearly. It’s not too surprising that Shankar rocks quantum. He wrote the book on it.

    Shankar is also funny, really funny (well, for a physics prof, that is). The evidence is on his website. See, in particular, quotes from his lectures (Word document). His students seem to have a sense of humor too. For example, here’s how Shankar began lecture 22.

    So I got an interesting email this weekend from two of your buddies, Jerry Wang and Emma Alexander. The title of the email is this. It says Casaplanka, so I already know these guys are up to no good. And the question is the following. They said, “You’ve written a wave function ψ(x) [psi of x] and [ψ](p) [psi of p]. There seems to be no reference of time, so where is time in this,” and they couldn’t stop there. That would be a good place to stop but they went on to say, “Are you saying the ψ [psi] is just a ψ [psi] as time goes by?” So that’s the kind of stuff that appeals to me, so I don’t care if you don’t learn any quantum mechanics, but if you can do this kind of stuff I’m not worried about you.

    For the three of you still reading, here’s something I realized while listening to Physics II. The history of my college (physics, as I said) and graduate school (statistical image and signal processing) academic careers can be described as “following the complex exponential.” If it isn’t the most useful function (operator) in all of science and engineering, my professors led me astray. Probably Shankar would agree.

    I’ve got to be honest though, health policy is much harder than physics, and no more yielding to intuition than quantum. If science and engineering are largely about the complex exponential, health and health policy are exponentially complex. Probably Shankar would agree with this too. After all, he said,

    I’ve gotta be nice to my students, because one day one of you could be my physician. I could be lying flat on my back, and you could be coming up to me with a mask on and a knife in your hand. I’d say ‘What about my anesthesia?’ and you’d say ‘What about that formula sheet you promised me?’, so that’s why I try to treat you guys nicely.

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    • “Shankar is also funny, really funny (well, for a physics prof, that is). ”

      Hmm. I’ve always found physicists to be funny.

      A certain great physicist (David Frisch) was visting our house ca. 1972. When he heard that I was about to head off to MIT to do Comp. Sci., he took me aside and said “Son, you can study anything you want, but just remember that if you aren’t a good physicist, you aren’t a good human being.”

      Like I said, Physicists are funny.

    • Just wanted to let you know that at least one of your readers is a practicing Physicist. I was originally a theoretical astrophysicist, then switched over to Medical Physics where I pulled a stint as a hospital clinical physicist before going back to theoretical physics, but now working in ultrasound.

    • Actually, you do have a physicist reader. I’m a graduate student in theoretical high-energy particle physics who moonlights as an amateur health-care policy wonk. 🙂