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PHYS 496 C: Seminar on Current Problems in Physics

Meeting Time: 
Th 2:30pm - 4:20pm
PAA A110
Jason Detwiler Portrait
Jason Detwiler

Syllabus Description:

Thursdays 2:30 - 4:20 pm in PAA A110

Instructor: Prof. Jason Detwiler
Office: PAB B444
Office Hours: By appointment
Best contact method: Canvas Messaging

Course Description

Welcome to PHYS 496: Seminar on Current Problems in Physics. The aim of the course is to provide you with an opportunity to learn in-depth about a topic in experimental, observational, or theoretical physics, and at the same time gain experience in doing literature research, preparing a scientific presentation, and writing a short research paper. This quarter writing credit is optional for this course: those students wishing to receive writing credit will be required to write a lengthier research report. My role as instructor will be to help you choose an appropriate topic, to help answer questions that come up as you research your chosen topic, and to provide feedback on your work.

Course Structure

Topic selection and literature research
You are expected to select a research topic in experimental, observational, or theoretical physics and submit a short proposal. The topic you choose to pursue this quarter must not be a topic that you have explored in previous seminar courses or independent research.

Your proposal should include the key references you will use in your research. Your references should address both breadth (getting the big picture of your topic) as well as depth (getting to the details on your topic). The references for your topic must include at least one refereed journal publication.

You will meet with me in weeks 2 and 3 to discuss your topic and your research progress.

Presentations and Participation
All students will give two presentations.  During the 4th and 5th weeks, you will give a short (10 minute or less) 3-5 slide presentation outlining the basic story you are investigating, leaving time for questions and suggestions.  The presentation must be aimed toward the class as a whole; include everyone and aim to allow everyone to follow.  

During weeks 6, 7, and 8, you will give a "final" presentation on your topic.  These will be 15 minute timed slots where the full research investigation is presented and where you will have refined your presentation taking into account feedback from the first round.  The presentation should be 10-12 minutes in length, followed by 3 minutes of class questions (or adjusted slightly depending on enrollment).

You will be expected to upload your presentation slides (short and long) to Canvas.

All class members are expected to participate in these presentations by filling out questionnaires for each.  Students are also required to ask at least three questions at some point during these presentations.

During weeks 9 and 10 you will write a summary report of your research topic. This paper is due on the last day of class. To allow time for this activity, we will not hold in-person classes during weeks 9-10. 

Your writing should aim for a generally scientific literate audience, meaning anyone with an undergraduate STEM degree, such as yourselves.  You should lift the story from its research specialist level to a simpler, more accessible summary, like a newspaper or magazine article about a major finding.  This report will be about 3-5 pages; it need not have extensive references.  One or two figures will be expected.  A formatted template will be provided. For good examples of what is expected, see for example APS Viewpoints.  These are summaries written by an outsider that captures the essence of the paper in a language that outsiders can follow.

If you wish to receive the official "W" writing credit, your report is expected to be 10-15 pages and more significant in content, aimed at an audience with some knowledge of the research area you have chosen.  The report can be a survey or review of the topic, or it can delve into specifics about a particular question or experiment.  An abstract and outline for the paper must be submitted by week 5 (i.e., after your short presentation), a five-page draft is due by week 8, and the full paper, on which your writing grade will be based, is due on the last day of class. The paper should be "scientific" in style, with an abstract, introduction, body, conclusion, and references.

Grading Policy

Grades will be based on the following point system:

Proposal and Short Presentation:  10 each

Longer (final) Presentation:  30 total

  • Technical content and slide quality: 20
  • Delivery and Q&A: 10

Written Report:  30 total

  • Quality of the narrative (title, organized flow): 10
  • Figures and / or other supportive aspects:  10
  • Overall evaluation.  Did you convey the story?  10

Participation: 30 total

  • In-class questions: 12
  • Presentation questionnaires: 36

70% corresponds to a grade of 3.0. Scores of 95% or higher will be given a 4.0. If GPAs come out anomalously low, all grades will be scaled up at the end of the quarter to match historical averages for this course. A grade of 0.0 will be given to anyone who does not complete the in-class presentation or written submission. There is no final exam.

For those requesting the Writing Credit, the evaluation will be based on 

  • Abstract and Outline: 10
  • Draft: 10
  • Final Draft: 30 (same breakdown as above)

You must earn 70% of the available points to receive writing credit. These scores do not contribute to your GPA.

Late Work
Late assignments will be reduced by 10% per day (applied multiplicatively after grading). Assignments 10 days late will receive a score of zero.


Research Topics

You may essentially choose any current topic in physics that interests you. Here are some ideas to help you pick:

Recent important results and discoveries
High-profile recent discoveries
Things your parents / friends (might) ask you questions about
Subjects of recent Nobel Prizes and other awards

Current research efforts
Research being carried out here at UW
Topics studied by research groups at your prospective graduate schools
Research related to a potential future employer
Topics from recent colloquia and seminars that have caught your interest

Physics and society
Challenges and research in physics education
Scientific literacy, outreach, and public support for physics research
Applications of physics in problems of social, economic, and political import
Physics controversies, pseudoscience, and fringe science

Suggested Resources

Major breakthroughs
Nobel Prizes in Physics
Breakthrough Prizes in Physics
Science Magazine's Breakthroughs of the Year (2021, 2020, 2019, ...)

Physics World's Top 10 Breakthroughs (2021, 2020, 2019, ...)
Wikipedia's Year in Science (2021, 2020, 2019, ...)

Science news and periodicals
Nature News
Science News 
APS Physics 
Physics Today 
Inside Science 
New Scientist 
Scientific American

Featured journal articles and preprints
PRL Editor's Suggestions 
Nature featured physics articles

Research listings at academic institutions, labs, and user facilities
UC Berkeley
IPMU Tokyo
Sanford Underground Research Facility

Local colloquia and seminar listings
UW Frontiers of Physics Public Lecture Series
UW physics colloquia
INT workshops and seminars
ABC seminars 

CENPA seminars 

Safe campus

I am committed to ensuring a safe environment on campus. Call SafeCampus at 206-685-7233 anytime – no matter where you work or study – to anonymously discuss safety and well-being concerns for yourself or others. SafeCampus’s team of caring professionals will provide individualized support, while discussing short- and long-term solutions and connecting you with additional resources when requested. For more information and resources, see the Safe Campus website.

Religious Accommodations

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy ( Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (

Academic integrity and student conduct

The University takes academic integrity and student conduct very seriously.  Behaving with integrity and respect is part of our responsibility to our shared learning community. Acts of academic misconduct may include, but are not limited to, plagiarism and sharing course materials without permission.

All the course materials, including student work, are intellectual properties of the instructor / students and the University of Washington. Distributing them in any form without permission is forbidden.  

The University of Washington Student Conduct Code (WAC 478-121) defines prohibited academic and behavioral conduct and describes how the University holds students accountable as they pursue their academic goals.  Allegations of misconduct by students may be referred to the appropriate campus office for investigation and resolution.  More information can be found online at

If you’re uncertain about if something is academic or behavioral misconduct, ask me.  I am happy to discuss any questions you might have.

Catalog Description: 
Supervised, independent study of topics (chosen by faculty in charge) of current interest in physics. Written and oral presentations summarizing work accomplished are required. Offered: Sp.
GE Requirements: 
Natural Sciences (NSc)
Section Type: 
Last updated: 
January 26, 2022 - 4:24am