SM358 The Quantum World 25% in…

When I was looking at the level three maths modules for my Open University degree, one of the ones that really drew my eye was SM358, the quantum world.  I decided to only do a single module this year as I’d committed to a lot of speaking engagements in October and, in addition to my day job, I’ve been spending time on another project that I’m really excited about for the start of 2019.  From past experience, if you fall behind on OU modules at the beginning, it can be very hard to catch up.  This was really noticeable with the complex analysis and stochastic dynamics modules I started in 2017.  Rather than taking on too much, I decided on just one level 3 module.  Given my progress so far I’m only about a week behind and I’m pretty happy with that.

The small gap is for the practise CMA, but I’m otherwise on track so far!

What has disappointed me most about SM358 is that there are no face to face tutorials.  I have found tutorials to be hugely beneficial in my OU studies and it’s such a shame that they aren’t offered for this course.  While there are online tutorials in the evening, I’m rarely home in time for them to start, let alone have eaten and spent any time with my family.  Taking a tutorial in my house just doesn’t work for me, although I know plenty of people who love this way of interacting.  I miss my Saturday mornings at the local college.

I’ve just submitted the first computer marked assessment (iCMA) and am pretty pleased with it, which bodes well for the first tutor marked assignment (TMA) due in 9 days.  Switching to physics from (relatively) pure maths has been a huge shift in mindset.  Something the OU are aware of with this slight passive aggressive insult:

The difference between mathematicians and scientists…!

There are some distinct differences between studying physics and maths with the OU.

Firstly is the lack of worked examples and exercises.  There were so few questions in SM358 that it was difficult to really cement the topic before moving to the next.  As such I didn’t feel prepared to answer the assignment questions, previously I would have.

A second surprise was that the practise CMAs are not available until after you have to complete the related assignment.  While useful for exam revision it does seem counter intuitive to be able to practise after the event…

The handbook for SM358 is more of a dictionary and contains very little of use compared to the maths modules.  It concerns me that we are expected to memorise standard equations.  Knowing what they mean and how to apply them should be the key rather than risking mistakes from something that is easy to look up in any other situation.  Similarly, during the iCMA it was clear that there were equations that we were already meant to know and apply that were never explicitly mentioned.  At least knowing this at the start of the course means that I can make a list of what I need to memorise.

Fortunately, one of the techniques I am pretty familiar with is dimensional analysis and this meant I could make an intelligent guess at what was needed just to balance the units, so if you’re unfamiliar with this, it’s worth reading up on prior to starting the course.

Prior to the course there is a mathematics primer, but it does seem that there is a gap on the physics side.  I did do A level physics (albeit some time ago) so the knowledge I needed was there, if a bit buried, but I feel that there should either be a requirement precursor module that covers this or some summary material as an optional starter.  Even in one of the CMA questions it clearly states it relies on aspects that are not covered.

Overall, despite the culture shock at the different teaching and assessment style, I’m really enjoying the course.  A lot of the things that I’ve just accepted from chemistry ae starting to click into place.  Similarly the eigenvalue and eigenfunctions from level 2 are becoming useful.

The whole concept of quantum mechanics is fascinating and is giving me more questions than have yet been answered, but with 2 and a half course books yet to go through I’m hoping we’ll at least get me part of the way there.

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Dr Janet is a Molecular Biochemistry graduate from Oxford University with a doctorate in Computational Neuroscience from Sussex. I’m currently studying for a third degree in Mathematics with Open University. During the day, and sometimes out of hours, I work as a Chief Science Officer. You can read all about that on my LinkedIn page.