What do 10,000 Mac students, past and present, have in common?

That’s approximately how many have taken Professor Sung Kyu Kim’s course “Contemporary Concepts of Physics.” Con Con, as nicknamed by students, was developed by Kim in 1967. He saw the need for a strong physics course for students across all majors, developed the course, and wrote the textbook for it. This fall 52 students are taking the course in two sections.

Con Con blends a 21st-century understanding of physics with the awe and excitement of the ancient art of storytelling. As Kim draws furiously to illustrate concepts and tosses a marker to demonstrate the path of a projectile in motion, he is also bringing alive the excitement of discovery, quoting from newspaper accounts and the private letters of scientists who dedicated their lives to understanding time, space, motion and matter, e.g. Einstein, writing about a discovery: “I was beside myself with ecstasy for days!”

“I want students to leave the course with an appreciation of human creativity at its best,” says Kim. The final lecture of the course, based on an Isaac Newton quote, is titled “Whence arise all that order and beauty we see in the world?” But first, students learn about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, curved space, black holes, electromagnetic energy, quarks and neutrinos, and other elements of physics. Contemporary Concepts is a perfect example of the liberal arts in action, opening the world of physics to majors from creative writing to economics, who value breadth as well as depth in their studies.

In fact, Stephen Smith ’82, executive editor and host of the highly respected public radio documentary series American RadioWorks, addressed that in his documentary, Who Needs an English Major? The Future of Liberal Arts Education. In the documentary Smith, who took Kim’s course in the ’80s, said,

Sung Kyu Kim’s physics class was a revelation to me. He made the Big Bang cool; the Theory of Relativity was mind-opening. And the ideas I was learning did actually inform the way I read books and, eventually, how I practice my profession. For example, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle: … As long as you’re looking, you’re part of the picture —you’re changing what you look at by being there. That idea stuck with me because as a journalist I’m always asking how my being there changes the scene that I’m watching.

It’s a good course for humanities students because it’s more conceptual than math-based,” says Emma Pulido ’14 (Brooklyn, N.Y.). “Professor Kim is great and goes about things in a very entertaining way. We learned about every major discovery in physics.”

Kim is also known for the Summer Physics Institute he teaches each year. Primarily aimed at pre-med students, the institute packs a year of physics into eight weeks. Begun in 1993, the institute draws students from top colleges and universities across the country, 74 last summer alone.

No matter what class is before him, Kim’s joy in teaching is obvious—he smiles constantly, sharing with students the physics he clearly delights in. Why does he like it so much? “Physics,” says Kim, “It’s all about the power of human thought.”

November 30 2011

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