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PHYS 107 A: Quantum Mechanics, Relativity, and the Foundations of Our Modern Technological World

Meeting Time: 
MTThF 1:30pm - 2:20pm
PAA A110
Miguel Morales

Syllabus Description:


We live in a technological world surrounded by machines of nearly magical ability. For your grandparents knowing where you were to within a mile or two required specialized equipment and training—now you just take out your phone. And if they were injured doctors used radioactive minerals and silver salts to look inside the body instead of an MRI machine. But how do GPS and MRI machines work?

It turns out that relativity and quantum mechanics have become the foundation of much of modern technological life. In this class we will explore how our modern technological world depends on relativity and quantum mechanics, and along the way we will explore the history of quantitative knowledge—how we know what we know.

Embarking on a modern physics class can be intimidating—few things trigger more fear than “a simple introduction to physics.” But to the intrepid and brave, I will make a few promises before we start:

  • No math. While the language of relativity and quantum mechanics is written using fairly advanced math, I don’t believe one has to read Japanese before you can appreciate Japanese art. Our journey will focus on the beauty and elegance of the physical world.

  • No philosophy. There has been a fascination with the ‘meaning’ of quantum mechanics and relativity, but we’ll leave that discussion for pints down at the pub (someday). Here we will focus on what we see.

  • Everything we encounter will be experimentally verified. While some of the results might be surprising, nothing we encounter will be speculative. This is how our world works.


Grades will based on homework & quizzes (15%), midterms (Jan 31 & Feb 28; 20% each), class participation (10%), and a final paper (due March 13; 35%). There will be no final. In general the early part of each week will concentrate on understanding how the physical world works, with the end of the week looking at how that impacts our lives and the history of quantitative understanding. Homework will be due Saturday night each week, and extra credit on homework will always be available for creativity or extra effort. Reading load will be modest, but much of the reading will be difficult (must be read slowly). Quizzes will be assigned along with the reading assignments. 

Office hours

Miguel Morales:  Friday 2:30-3:30 C325, and by appointment email


There will be a variety of reading, most from an online text I wrote. A full list of all seven articles can be found here


For zoom recordings of lectures, click on the day's lecture and the link will take you there.

Week 1

T:  Introduction; ice breaker; Eratosthenes; what time is it; Earth rotation, sidereal vs. solar time; slides

Th: Where am I? Analemma, sundials; Latitude & Longitude; ancient way finding; slides

F:  The Longitude Problem; slides


Reading: History of Clocks

Homework: Sun dials


Week 2

M:  Introduction to Waves. Wavelength, amplitude, speed, transverse, compression, restoring force; slides

T:  Let there be light; slides

Th:  Moving like a wave and hitting like a particle; slides

F:  Electromagnetic spectrum & telescopes across the spectrum; slides


Reading:   Chapter 1

Homework:  Double slit


Week 3


T:  Speed of light, starting with the Galilean moons, moving to measurements; slides

Th:  Special Relativity. Concentrate on everyone thinks they’re right. Non-additive speed; slides

F:  Surveying & Geodimeter; slides


Reading: Chapter 2


Week 4

M:  Particle Melting Pot (no recording); slides

T:  Better clocks. Quartz, atomic, optical. Variation of earth’s spin and redefining time. UTC & atomic time.; slides

Th: GPS; slides

F:  Midterm review; slides


Homework: Relativity & Particle Mixing


Midterm topic guide

2020 midterm, 2021 midterm


Week 5

M:  Midterm review; slides

T:  Midterm 1 (Jan. 31)

Th:  History of computation. Abacus, mechanical calculators, looms, people; slides

F: Computers, tubes, machine language, modern developments. Theme is computers don’t understand anything, are just clever sets of switches and levers (no recording). slides


Reading:  History of computing reading, Chapter 3  

Homework: Midterm #1 correctionHistory of computation


Week 6

M:  World is made of notes (no recording); slides

T:  Particle introverts & extroverts; slides

Th:  Spectrum allocation and VNA show and tell (video pt1, pt2); slides

F:  Communicating music. Music notation, player piano, records, CDs, MP3+; slides


Reading: Chapter 3

Homework:  Final Paper Proposal


Week 7

M:  Looking at the sky; slides

T:  Hanbury Brown & Twissslides

Th:  Interferometers, science & applications; slides

F:  Why the Caged Bird Sings (trapped waves); slides


Reading:   Chapter 4


Week 8

M:  President’s Day

T:  Atomic Traps; slides

Th:  Quantum Dots; slides

F:  Midterm review; slides


Reading:  Chapter 5

Midterm guide

2020 midterm; 2021 midterm


Week 9

M:  Midterm review; slides

T:  Midterm 2 (February 28)

Th:  Quantum Spooks (no video); slides

F:  Quantum Spooks, part 2; slides


Reading: Chapter 6


Week 10

M:  Gravity waves; slides 

T:  Power generation:  livestock, water… to superconductors; slides

Th:  Medical imaging:  x-rays to MRI; slides

F: What we've learned and how we use it to understand the universe; slides


Reading: Last Chapter




Most accommodation requests will be handled through Disability Resources for Students, including special testing requests on the midterms. 

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 (

Catalog Description: 
Explores the principles of quantum mechanics and relativity, with no use of mathematics, and how they enable current and near-future machines that shape our lives.
GE Requirements: 
Natural Sciences (NSc)
Section Type: 
Last updated: 
October 19, 2022 - 4:45am