It is hard to imagine a future in which an MIT graduate has no familiarity with electric and magnetic fields. However, the report of the Task Force on the Undergraduate Educational Commons has made recommendations that could have that outcome for some students. It is therefore important to re-examine the justification for requiring electricity and magnetism (8.02) for all students. We list below six distinct intellectual reasons for retaining 8.02 as a required part of the General Institute Requirements.
It is essential to our understanding the world around us. The most fundamental processes in nature, from the forces that determine the structure of atoms and molecules to the phenomena of light to nerve impulses in living systems, depend on electric and magnetic fields.
It is fundamental to current and future technologies. Motors, power generation and transmission, electronics, sensors, and communication – both wired and wireless – involve the manipulation of electric or magnetic fields. There are few advances in technology that can be made without the use of electronic circuits or electric and magnetic fields. Of the current freshman science subjects beyond 8.01 – 8.02, chemistry, and biology – 8.02 is required by the most departments.
It is the simplest example of unification in science. A large and diverse body of observational facts can be explained in terms of a few simple concepts. The phenomena of electricity and magnetism, which appear to be completely different, are shown to be two manifestations of the same physics. The theory requires few if any approximations. Results can be predicted with great accuracy.
It provides an ideal introduction to vector fields. 8.02 demonstrates real world applications of the material in 18.02. The equations are simple enough to be accessible to freshmen. Yet, since the equations are linear, they are exactly solvable in many important cases. Skills gained here can be applied anywhere vector fields are used, such as in hydrodynamics, where the fundamental equations are intrinsically more complex.
Incoming students are least familiar with this material. Of all the current Science Core Subjects, E&M is the material least likely to have been covered well in high school. In addition, the concepts of electric and magnetic fields are totally non-intuitive to most students. Thus the material is most likely to be exciting to the curious student. It satisfies their need to feel that they have learned something new and deep.
It represents the most quantitative mode of inquiry of all the sciences. Of the various ways to approach science, physics in general, and E&M in particular, starts with the smallest set of fundamental assumptions. Quantitative rigor in solving important problems is rewarded by unprecedented agreement with measured results. Chemistry and biology demonstrate different, complementary approaches to dealing with natural phenomena.
Thomas Greytak is the Associate Department Head for Education in the Department of Physics; Marc Kastner is Head of the Department of Physics.
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