February 02, 2018, BY Matt Hughes

What Class: Symmetry

Who Teaches It: Professors Peter Brooksbank, mathematics, and JiaJia Dong, physics & astronomy 

"American physicist Richard Feynman famously said 'the truth always turns out to be simpler than you thought.' What he meant is that physical systems which on first inspection exhibit complex behaviors become simpler once the relationships between underlying quantities are revealed. In physics, as in many other disciplines, this is often achieved by identifying certain symmetries of the system. Our course offers a conceptual study of symmetry and its manifestations in, and applications to, various fields.  

"Our journey starts with 'visible' illustrations of symmetry arising in art and architecture, and continues with topics such as chemistry where we must dig a little deeper to reveal the essential symmetries. It culminates with applications to physical reality that we now understand to be governed by 'invisible' symmetries. Along the way we pause to consider issues of symmetry and asymmetry in fields as varied as religion, philosophy, computer science, music and biology. As we follow our path, we develop a more sophisticated language in order to describe, compute with, and classify symmetries. This language is based upon a mathematical construct called a 'group,' and its properties are revealed gradually using a combination of art, games, puzzles and patterns. 

"As an Integrated Perspectives course, our class meetings rely far less on lecture than would a typical course. Instead, we stimulate class discussion through readings from a variety of sources and develop the technical skills needed for a deeper understanding of symmetry through collaborative activities both in and out of class. We also harness the expertise of the Bucknell faculty by inviting scholars from different fields to discuss how a consideration of symmetry helps or enriches their own work. The course concludes with an extended research project of each student's choosing, which is shared with the rest of the class through a series of themed panel discussions. Our goal is for students to come away with a keen sense of the diverse and far-reaching applications of symmetry, and a hint of the vast potential in using ideas from one field to attack tough problems in another."

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