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How Not to Teach Quantum Mechanics

The Atlantic Wire

Quantum mechanics is difficult to understand and probably a nightmare to teach. Today a Columbia professor took the latter truth a little too seriously. In a video posted by the Columbia-centric website Bwog, professor Emlyn Hughes is shown stripping down to his underwear and curling up into a ball on the floor as the room's projector plays images of 9/11 and the Holocaust and two people dressed an ninjas impale a pair of dolls onstage. (Really — go watch it.) During the video of the show, several students are overheard saying, quite understandably, "Um, is this real life?" And: "How does this relate to anything?" Bwog, meanwhile, was equally confused: "It makes no sense to us either."

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If the recent history of professors engaging in outre instruction methods is any guide, when professors take their clothes off in front of a bunch of college kids, little else of their message makes it through. In 2011, a Northwestern professor achieved national fame for hosting a demonstration of a motorized dildo, and in 2012 a Michigan professor was arrested after suddenly shucking all of his clothes during a confusing rant about Steve Jobs.

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Hughes's reason for stripping down, however, was a bit deeper. Toward the end of his performance, Hughes took up the microphone and suggested that he sought to confuse the class (deliberately!) so as to better prepare their minds for the brain-melting complexity of quantum mechanics:

In order to learn quantum mechanics you have strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain, and start all over again. Um ... nothing you have learned your life up to now has in any way helped you prepare for this. Because everything you do in your everyday life is totally opposite what you learn in quantum mechanics.

We're not totally sure the ploy worked — after all, it leaned heavily on the still-shocking images of the Two Towers collapsing and wartime footage of Nazi Germany. But the intent is clear: confusing students is preferable to boring them.

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