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Undergraduate Days Gone By

December 20, 2008

This past semester was my final one as a physics undergrad. I had two last classes to take officially – one had to be Sr. Physics Lab but the other was an elective which could (and, by the opinion of various advisors, should) have been Quantum Mechanics but I chose to take Introduction to Astrophysics instead. The benefit of being a (putative) adult is that I do not always need to take the advice of others, even if it really is a good idea. The administration of the physics department has corrected that oversight and QM is required for anyone using the latest course catalogs.

Senior Physics Lab, taught by Dr. Karen Sauer, was quite interesting as I had hoped and expected it to be. It consisted of two 30-45 minute lectures followed by 3 official hours of lab work each week. We could work additional hours if we wanted to, except for the one experiment that required a radioactive source only the instructor was permitted to handle. Each student had to complete four projects/experiments over the semester, generally as a solo project (except for one or two projects considered difficult/complicated enough to duo). For my projects, I chose the Zeeman Effect, Plasma Diagnosis, Compton Scattering and Optical Pumping. The projects themselves ranged from fairly easy (ZM) to bothersomely difficult (PD). The write-ups, however, were the real challenge. Dr. Sauer demanded (after the first draft) fairly rigorous, publishable-level papers. Whether she got anything close to that level is a question for her, but I tried. My papers ran 1600-3300 words and were graded 9 out of 10 on average. My grade for the semester: A

Introduction to Astrophysics, taught by Dr. Shobita Satyapal, was a mixed bag. On one hand, the topic is incredibly interesting to me and getting some in-depth information on how the universe works was fascinating. On the other hand, I felt the class was easier than perhaps it should be. Granted, it is a survey course (like nearly everything else in the undergrad physics world), but I think we could have spent more time on the equations of astrophysics beyond the mostly-unproved basics. On the other hand, if it had been very difficult, I likely would have just complained about that, so I should just be happy with the A+ grade I received.

Even though I only took two classes officially, I still tried to squeeze in some more unofficially, just to keep things active.

Astrobiology, by Dr. Summers. I’ve taken this before and since I am nominally doing research for him and really enjoyed the class, I regularly attended this class. It was great two years ago and even better now. Class attendance has doubled and his slides have become even more awesome with time. It’s still fun. I took one exam without studying for it (did not realize it was being offered) and scored an 85, which was pretty good considering I usually forget things immediately after the semester ends.

Electromagnetic Theory – I sat through maybe half the classes of this one, hoping to pick up something I had missed in my first horrid class. However, the instructor was teaching off the same exact notes (word for word, example for example) as the ones used in the class I took officially and the teaching seemed under par.

Introduction to Quantum Mechanics was every bit as complex as I anticipated, but I attended and took notes as well as I could. I kept up fairly well with the topics until we reached Hermitian operators, at which point an entire class went by which sounded like a completely foreign language to me (the result of doing no outside work on the class). At that point, I realized I would be wasting my time attending further classes and used the time to extend my lab work or go home early and see my children before bedtime.

And so my undergrad career comes to a close with a cumulative GPA of 3.96. Now that I am not distracted by regular classes, I hope to be able to dig deep into my research, probably by taking my laptop to school one or more days a week and concentrating on things there, since I will always find a distraction if I stay at home. The grad school situation is currently fuzzy – my intent is to continue my work at GMU with Dr. Summers, but they now require applicants to take the Physics GRE and the next test is not held until just before the deadline for applications, so I may end up with a dead semester or two until I can get the paperwork completed, unless I can get a waiver to skip that portion given the faculty’s familiarity with me over the past several years. Time will tell.

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