Friday, September 12, 2008

Griffiths Was Here!

We had a huge bit of excitement yesterday as our weekly colloquium speaker was someone we were all very eager to meet- Dr. David Griffiths. Every physics student the world over knows Griffiths because he has written the standard textbook used in upper-level electromagnetism courses, as well as dominantly used quantum mechanics and nuclear particle texts. Clearly we had to invite him, and clearly by "we" I mean "I" in this setting because this was a student-inspired idea and I always get tapped to do these things.

As a secondary note, because I did the inviting this meant I also got to do the hosting, so I hosted my first colloquium speaker. Probably a first time a student ever did such a thing at our institution (I don't know why, it's really fun and you get a nice dinner!), but I like to see how far I can get away with things...

Anyway, comments about Griffiths' visit-

1) David is, it turns out, really really awesome. As in we had a pizza lunch in the undergrad lounge with him for the students, and most of the 1+ hour was spent with ~30 physics students staring at him in rapt attention while he talked about various topics.

2) If you think it's awesome to be on a first-name basis with David Griffiths, and moreover hang out with people who are jealous of you for the fact, you might be a nerd. Just maybe.

3) He was nice enough to sign our books. Was not even perturbed when asked to sign international editions of books that some students had, on the grounds that the publishing industry is such a racket in the US.

4) Because everyone wants to know I'm sure, the quantum book cover with the live cat on the front, dead cat on the back was his publisher's idea and not his. The funny thing about the cat, apparently, is David noticed it was visibly plagiarized off a Scientific American cover a few months prior. Upon writing his publisher urgently saying something needed to be done, he received the cryptic response of "don't worry about it" so the cover has stayed the same since.

5) About once every three or four months, someone emails Griffiths outraged over the mere image of the dead cat. He thus far just responds by saying the cat might just be sleeping, but I suggested he write back saying the cat was killed by the act of looking at it just to see what happens.

6) One last note about the quantum book: the fact that the last word in the whole thing is "gullible" is deliberate.

7) The E&M book and quantum book in particular were written from class notes from classes David taught where the students hated the book (the nuclear particle one was written mainly while at SLAC on sabbatical). There are notes for perhaps one more book, on general relativity, but he says he likes the book he uses for GR so the motivation really isn't there.

8) I asked him if he'd ever considered wirting a thermodynamics book because I hate Kittel & Kromer so much. He said no, because he didn't think he understood thermo or that most anyone really does. Fair enough...

9) The colloquium itself- ie the technical excuse we used to drag him all the way to Cleveland to speak- was really neat. It has the distinct honor of being a theory talk I actually followed most of since you could if you had a general quantum background, about what happens to an electron orbiting a +q charge when a -q charge approaches it (originally worked by Fermi, but not to much precision). It involved a few really nifty and elegant explanations involving a 1/x-squared potential and left both theorists and experimentalists in the audience alike in good spirits, so I'm glad that worked out!

10) I think my favorite thing about the talk though was how, for lack of better explanation, it was exactly the sort of thing I imagined David Griffiths would give. He lectures very well and speaks in a manner very similar to how he writes, so combined with using the exact same font used in the books for the equations I was captivated. The man must give wicked lectures!


Aaron said...

Oh maaaaan! *envies* In the Society of Physics Students office at my school, David Griffiths is on our whiteboard list of badass physicists. So I guess being on a first-name basis with him makes you a second-degree badass! :)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the synopsis Rommie, it was like being there!
--Jealous halfway across the country, pumpkinpi