Physics 190, 2015: Syllabus

From Ilya Nemenman: Theoretical Biophysics @ Emory
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Back to Physics 190, 2015: Freshman Seminar: Where do laws of nature come from?

Course Title
Freshman Seminar: Where do laws of nature come from?
Course Number
Physics 180
Class Meeting Time
M, W 11:30-12:45
Ilya Nemenman (best way to contact me)
Office Hours
Mon 2-3pm and by appointment
Class Web Page,_2015:_Freshman_Seminar:_Where_do_laws_of_nature_come_from%3F


There is no required single textbook that will cover all subjects discussed in the class. Reading and other assignments will be distributed.


There are no formal pre-requisites for this class. However, I expect that students who have had some prior exposure to science and higher level math in high school will do better in this class. Note that this is a Physics class -- so I won't be making apologies for using some (reasonable) amount of mathematics during this class.

Class structure

This is a freshman seminar, and so you shouldn't expect to have the material delivered in a standard lecture format. Instead, the class main page will have a list of assigned reading or discussions for each class. It will be your responsibility to read the assignment, when given, before the class, and to write a short, about half-page long summary of the assignment, posting it on Blackboard at least two hours before the class. The class periods themselves will be a mixture of discussions and lectures (wherever I think a lecture is needed to introduce some material to you that is needed to understand the reading assignments). The balance will be skewed strongly towards discussions, and some of these discussions will have designated discussion leaders. When the schedule allows, we will spend the classes at various science seminars around campus, and we will discuss topics of these seminars before and after them, with me lecturing on the related topics.

Pre-class assignments will available from the class main page shortly. Most are reading assignments, but some will involve watching videos, or attending seminars and presentations around campus. I expect that the reading assignments will be 1-30 pages in length, averaging 10-15 pages per class over the semester. Reading and understanding them may take from just a few minutes, to a few hours, averaging a few hours of preparation time per week. Non-reading assignments will be of a similar level of difficulty. Most reading assignments will involve reading electronic versions of papers or essays, but some will direct you to the library: you should learn how to use the library!
Written summaries
You will need to post summary of your assignments on Blackboard at least two hours before you arrive in class for each class that has assigned reading. The summary should be short, about half a page long. Unless instructed otherwise, the summaries should include: (1) a list of at least three most important points your learned or read about; (2) a list of as at least three questions about the assignment that you would like to discuss. If you found something surprising or hard to believe, or that you don’t agree with, please note that in your summaries. You should bring a copy of your summary to class to help you participate in discussions.
Discussion leaders
Towards the end of the semester, I will assign each one of you to lead the in-class discussion of particular reading assignments. For those, you will need to act as a moderator of the discussion, and you will need to be familiar with the assignment at a qualitatively different level, compared to the rest of the students.
I would like you to start scouting the internet and the library, and talking to other faculty, looking for articles on the topic of the class that I don't know about. Specifically, what do our colleagues in life sciences and social sciences think about emergence of laws of nature in their disciplines? You will need to find such articles, and be ready to present them in-class at the very end of the semester. Alternatively, you may want to choose a specific well-known law of nature and try to analyze it following our discussions during the class: why does this law exist? Not later than the first week after the spring break (Mar 16-20), you should schedule some time with me to discuss your proposed project. I will need to approve it before you invest too much time into it. For projects, you will need to work in pairs (or triples, if we have more than 8 students in the class); I would like there to be four groups in the class.
There are no exams in this class.
The largest part of the grade will be based on your pre-class summary of assignments. Note that I will base the grade largely on the existence of these summaries, not on what you wrote in them. (Clearly, I will revisit this policy if I see someone submitting summaries full of obvious garbage.) Projects, and leading the discussions in-class will also be graded.
Rescheduled classes
Due to my travel during the semester, I will not be able to attend some of the lectures. Tentatively, these are Mar 2, 4, and Apr 6, 8, all subject to change. These classes will need to be rescheduled; more information will be provided later on.


  • Pre-class assignments: 60%
  • Project: 30%
  • Leading discussions: 10%

Your scores will convert to a letter grade as follows:

  • 93.0 - 100 A
  • 90.0 – 92.9 A-
  • 87.0 – 89.9 B+
  • 83.0 – 86.9 B
  • 80.0 – 82.9 B-

with the pattern repeating for C and D grades; 59.9 or less is a failing grade.

Honor code

The Emory College Honor Code applies to all homework assignments.

Topics to be covered

We will talk about what we mean by such different terms as laws of nature, theories, principles, and models. We will discuss why we believe that there should be laws describing how nature works, whether traditional inanimate nature, or biological and even social systems. We will investigate why and how such laws would emerge, and why they will be written always in the language of mathematics. We will address these questions from the perspective of many different fields: physics, biology, philosophy, etc.