By Steve Koppes
Photo by Robert Kozloff

Jeffrey Harvey specializes in a broad range of topics in string theory, particle theory, mathematical physics, and cosmology. He was recently appointed to the board of trustees of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., but he devotes a lot of energy to teaching as well. In addition to receiving the Quantrell Award, he earned a 2010 Faculty Award for Excellence in Graduate Teaching and Mentoring.

What undergraduate courses do you teach?

I’m teaching an undergraduate course on quantum mechanics that is taken by sophomores during their third quarter and then it continues for juniors in the first quarter of the fall. I’ve also co-taught with Sid Nagel [the Stein-Freiler Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and the College] a course for junior and senior physics majors, which was a survey of research topics. That was a lot of fun to teach but very challenging.

We didn’t really have a textbook, and we tried to give the students some flavor of everything—from what’s the Higgs boson to why do people make models of inflationary cosmology? What might dark matter be made out of? How do granular systems behave? We talked a lot about the commonality between techniques in condensed matter physics [the physics of fluids and solids] and particle physics. We tried to take a lot of what they know and combine it in different ways to give them a feel of what it’s like when you get to graduate school and what people are actually researching now.

What’s the best thing about teaching University of Chicago undergraduates?

They’re not only enthusiastic, they like a challenge. When I gave them a really hard problem set just a couple weeks ago, the students came back when handing it in saying, “Oh, I haven’t been so challenged since two years ago when I took Physics 142,” and “This was great.” They’re just very excited to be learning things, even if these things are difficult and challenging. I get a lot of positive reinforcement from their being excited and engaged.

In this quantum mechanics course, I think it’s really the first time that they encounter some of the physics that is both very powerful in explaining how the world works and also just extremely mysterious and bizarre. There’s this fuzzy world of probabilities: Nothing is sure. Things behave in ways that don’t fit with our intuition, and it's fantastic to be able to confront them with that and actually show them how the calculations work. They can do the calculations themselves and understand the behavior of interesting systems.

Do you have a philosophy of teaching?

“Philosophy” is probably too grand a word for it. Part of my “philosophy” is to recall what confused me when I was learning similar material and to use that knowledge to try to explain things as clearly as possible. I also try to convey excitement and also to have some fun. Last year I wrote a Galilean dialogue that I had a couple of the students perform. I occasionally tell them jokes. I bring them donuts. I try to convey that I’m interested in them and care about them, which I am and I do.

Originally published on June 3, 2013.