Last week I sat down with a colleague from the math department who had the thankless task of evaluating my teaching. First, a little background. Most evaluations at our university are done by tenured faculty within the same department, but because our department is small, my reviews usually come from folks in the other science departments. This time around, the usual chemistry and biology people were too busy, so I ventured out to the math department to ask for a review. It turned out that this was a great idea.
Anyone in physics knows how much math we use. In fact, we probably take it for granted. Just as an example, at our university the physics B.S. degree already contains enough classes for a math minor, and is only about three courses short of a full second degree in math. And anyone who teaches physics or takes a physics class knows that we spend a lot of time teaching math: vectors, calculus, linear algebra, differential equations, the list goes on….
So, with that as context, my math colleague sat in on two of my quantum mechanics lectures and saw first hand how we use math in physics and how integral it is to what we do. Reading between the lines of our later discussion, I think she had two reactions. First, she was grateful that her former students were actually using the things that she taught them, instead of that knowledge sinking into the void. And second, she saw how we emphasize slightly different things when we use math in physics than what she does as a mathematician. This led to a long talk between us about what math we need in physics and how we use it, and hopefully a continuing dialog between our departments.
In the end, this one simple interaction could make a big future difference to our students by increasing the synergy of their coursework. In academia we, particularly administrators, talk a lot about interdisciplinary collaboration, but it is difficult in practice to make it go. The great obvious-but-ignored commonality between departments is teaching and the students themselves. My epiphany of the week is that we can, and we should, use that link to form bonds between departments.
So, to my physics colleagues at other universities, I say go find a math professor and give them a hug, or at least take them out for a cup of coffee.