Alfred Hitchcock, quantum mechanics and cross-disciplinary collaboration at Yale: New bridge courses debut this semester
Vaibhav Sharma, Photo Editor
While physics professors at Yale might normally teach quantum mechanics with the aid of diagrams, equations and textbooks, students can now learn these topics with the aid of iconic films like Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 mystery-thriller “Rear Window” in a new spring course.
“Cinema and Physics: When the Birth of Cinema and the Scientific Revolution Met,” taught by Francesco Casetti and Michel Devoret, is one of four cross-disciplinary courses chosen by Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Tamar Gendler and Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun to receive a $10,000 stipend. Gendler and Chun selected the four courses from about a dozen choices, and all but one will run this semester — the postponed course has in-person components.
“The four that we selected showed particular imagination and brought together faculty who had not previously collaborated in teaching,” Gendler wrote in an email to the News. “We hope to continue the program in future years.”
Casetti, the Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of humanities and professor of Film Studies, and Devoret, the Frederick W. Beinecke Professor of applied physics, were good friends before they decided to teach the spring course together. While Casetti said he was admittedly not very knowledgeable about physics, both professors expressed a shared interest in the relationship between film and physical laws — a relationship that Devoret described as “metaphorical.”
While the professors plan to demonstrate different physical phenomena through film, they also hope to show through their class that revolutions in the physics field and film industry occurred in a similar timeframe.
In 1896, the Lumière brothers released a short film depicting the arrival of a train. Legend has it that theatergoers were so surprised by what appeared to be a live train rushing toward them that they ran from the room screaming. The film used some of the most innovative filmmaking technology of the time — and this progress happened while physics underwent its own revolution. Just four years later, Lord Kelvin, a British physicist, allegedly claimed that all of physics was known, except for “two clouds,” two spots in the sky that no one understood. Einstein theorized special relativity just five years after that.
The professors said they are well aware that filmmakers likely did not purposely include physics metaphors in their works. But the pair still believe that cinema can aptly explain different physical effects.
In “Rear Window,” for example, everything that happens is because of “a guy looking in front of him,” according to Casetti. Quantum mechanics helps explain this phenomenon: The act of observance itself can cause events to happen.
“Hitchcock wasn’t aware of the quantum revolution, but he captured the air of the time,” Casetti added.
The class has proven popular to Yale students: As of Monday night, there are 95 shoppers signed up for the course. Devoret laughed when discussing these numbers, adding his amazement that the course was more popular than some basic courses for the physics major, such as “Differential Equations.”
While Casetti and Devoret hope to discuss both film and physics in each class, the course will have two general parts — one half will focus on films, while the other will focus on the more “systematic” aspects of physics.
Devoret and Casetti, along with teaching fellow Carolyn Jacobs GRD ’20, have been preparing for the course for almost an entire year, calling it an “experiment” in bridging the humanities and science.
“I don’t know if it’s going to go well or badly,” Casetti acknowledged, “but we did work hard.”
Both professors agreed that regardless of whether the class goes well, the topic is important, and the type of discourse that they are introducing into the physics curriculum is necessary.
And while Devoret noted that some people might consider this approach to understanding physical laws “frivolous,” he considered the course merely a new, meaning-oriented way to teach the material.
Casetti interjected. “It’s not frivolous at all,” he said. “It’s hard questions.”
The other two cross-disciplinary courses chosen by Gendler and Chun that will be running this semester are “Choice Theory and its Critics,” taught by Daniel Greco and Larry Samuelson, and “Racial and Economic Justice in Transgender Health,” taught by Greta LaFleur and Ronica Mukerjee.
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