Faculty Profile: Physicist Peter Love
Peter Love teaches a physics class. Photo: Thom Carroll Photography
Associate Professor of Physics Peter Love not only trains future scientists in the intricacies of quantum mechanics, he helps non-science majors gain a concept of the field as well.
Quantum physics is one of those fields that, by their very definition, seem inscrutable to outsiders. Don’t have a firm grasp on “classical physics?” Then quantum physics—that is, the study of physical phenomena of such a microscopic scale that their rules are totally unique—is going to seem especially daunting. But Associate Professor of Physics Peter Love is working to make his scientific subspecialty, also known as quantum mechanics, more understandable to all kinds of students.
In addition to the many classes he teaches for physics majors (“Advanced Quantum Mechanics,” “Research in Theoretical and Computational Physics,” “Mechanics of Discrete and Continuous Systems”), Love created and taught a course last year on quantum mechanics for non-science majors. Called “ConceptualQuantumMechanics,” the class forced the computation-driven physicist to think about how to teach the concepts of the field without the advanced mathematics that are so much a part of it.
“In non-major science courses, we’re trying to give an understanding of science to people who are not going to be scientists, but who might very well be policy makers or have an impact on the world in other ways,” says Love, a British transplant who was educated at Oxford University. “I think it’s important for them to understand how science functions and what it can do, but often [with non-majors] you’re still trying to explain 19th-century science to them.” At the same time, Love says, his “Conceptual Quantum Mechanics” course aimed to help students grasp the idea that “the most elementary things you think about nature are just not true.”
The fact of the matter is that the science most of us learn in high school is more than a century old, and in many ways, modern science is a quantum view. There are micro-scale calculations that are problematic (or impossible to do) based on a classical understanding of atoms or radiation. Hence, the need for quantum physics.
“In quantum physics, energy and other physical quantities often come in discrete physical packets—quanta,” says Love. “Think about it like a financial matter. If I want to give you half of a cent,I have no way of doing that.There are these denominations, and the smallest amount of money I can give you is a cent. So that was the starting point of trying to understand all of these effects in micro-physics and develop quantum mechanics. Quantum mechanics completely displaces the classical picture on small scales.” For many in this field of study, the proof is literally in the (mathematical) proof. Conceptually, quantum physics is messy, so an attitude of what Love calls “shut up and calculate” pervades. But how then to explain such a field to those who can’t do those calculations? That’s what was so rewarding about his class last spring, Love says. He had to learn to reason quantum mechanics without using math, and to teach his students the concepts without the calculations.
English major and music minor Ben Weissman ’14 took “Conceptual Quantum Mechanics” in spring 2012. “The class did a very good job of supplying us with the framework or the understanding of a lot of really complex topics that would otherwise be inaccessible to humanities students,” he says. “It seemed to me that [Love] really enjoyed having the opportunity to be able to share his excitement about [quantum mechanics] with people who hadn’t necessarily ever looked at physics before or had no reason to be excited about it. He inspired me.”
The course’s creation was supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award, which Love earned in 2010. That grant, $500,000 over five years, was given mainly to fund a project called “A Roadmap for Quantum Simulation,” in which Love proposes theoretical work for a “roadmap” of experiments that will allow for efficient computer simulation of quantum systems. But the grant is also, to a lesser extent, bolstering the student-faculty collaboration that Love so appreciates.
Though Love came to teach physics at Haverford via a circuitous route that included time spent in the chemistry and math departments of other institutions, as well as work at a private company, it is clear that working with students is the part of his job that he relishes most. In 2009, he won the Lindback Distinguished Teaching Award, which honors full-time faculty members who have excellent teaching records, and in the last seven years, he has published five papers in leading journals with his students as co-authors.
Newly graduated physics major Samuel Rodriques ’13 was a recent recipient of Love’s mentorship. “In my first summer working for him, when I knew nothing about quantum information theory, he was a great resource and teacher and helped me to come to terms with the basics in the field, while still pushing on with research,” says Rodriques, who will spend a year at Cambridge University as a Churchill Scholar, and has also been awarded a prestigious Hertz Fellowship, which generously supports graduate work in the applied physical, biological and engineering sciences.“Last summer, when I came back from my year abroad, having taken graduate-level courses in quantum information theory and having written a master’s dissertation in quantum information theory, he and I began a very ambitious project…working more as collaborators than as teacher and student, and that is now really starting to pay off. We are preparing to submit our results for publication in one of the highest-impact journals in physics, and we might have another paper in the pipeline this summer. So,I’ve gotten to see him from both sides—he’s both a fantastic teacher and also extremely serious about his research.”
During the coming academic year, Love will be on sabbatical, working with his collaborators at Harvard University. But when he is back on campus in the fall of 2014, he hopes to again teach his class for non-majors, in addition to his regular course load and his usual shepherding of a new crop of senior physics theses.
“I like teaching a lot,” he says. “And it’s really nice to have students with such high potential. The challenge of teaching them is to help them to fulfill that potential.”
-- Rebecca Raber