Columbia Professor Strips In Bizarre Lecture On Quantum Mechanics

columbia19n-1-webProfessor Emlyn Hughesof Columbia University found a solution to the common complaint of students surfing the Internet and text messaging through class. In his lecture on quantum mechanics, Hughes stripped to his underwear as images of 9/11 and the Holocaust were shown to the class. Two people dressed as ninjas blindfolded stuffed animals while Hughes laid in a fetal position on the floor. One then impaled a stuffed animal with a sword.

As students openly murmured in confusion, Hughes then explained “In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have to strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain, and start over again . . . Um, nothing you’ve learned in your life up til now is in any way going to help prepare you for this. . . . I’ve been tasked with the impossible challenge of teaching you quantum mechanics in one hour.”

It might be difficult to erase the memory of this lecture but academic freedom does produce its idiosyncrasies. While stripping in class is rather novel, it is remarkably a device used by others to concentrate the mind of an audience. Covington & Burling partner David Remes stripped in front of a shocked in Yemen to convey a point about torture. It had the same memorable impact.

The bizarre nature of the display by Hughes was tied directly to a point about discarding preconceptions or knowledge. The question comes down to the stripping and whether it crosses the line of academic freedom.

The faculty handbook at Columbia is written in generalized terms that recognizes the strong presumption in favor of academic freedom:

In conducting their classes, faculty should promote an atmosphere of mutual tolerance, respect, and civility. They should allow the free expression of opinions within the classroom that may be different from their own and should not permit any such differences to influence their evaluation of their students’ performance. They should confine their classes to the subject matter covered by their courses and not use them to advocate any political or social cause. These principles of classroom conduct help to promote a healthy learning environment, but they do not limit the authority of the faculty to determine the actual content of their courses nor do they interfere with the right of faculty to express personal political views outside of the classroom in the manner of their choosing.

Students who feel that their faculty have not abided by these principles may file a complaint according to procedures described later in this chapter of the Handbook.

Here is Hughes bio:


My primary research is directed at the study of new particles and new interactions using the ATLAS detector at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. My group has been active in the commissioning of the ATLAS pixel detector, where we have participated in the development of the data acquisition system and various calibrations. Although we are broadly involved in searches for new physics, we have initially been focused on the study of jets and photons in high-energy proton-proton collisions. We are active in work pertaining to jet and photon energy calibrations as well as first QCD measurements. As the data size increases, we will continue to participate in the study of jets and missing energy that provide potential signals for the study of SUSY and the search for Dark Matter, as well as searching in the Higgs to two-photon channel.We are also pursuing R&D activities in collaboration with Brookhaven National Lab and Strasbourg (IPHC) on ultra-thin silicon detectors for future colliders. Nevis laboratory has a high intensity x-ray source, which provides a unique test facility for new detectors to be used in high radiation environments. The silicon research also will provide PhD theses for Columbia students based in New York City. A significant research investment in undergraduate education is also attached to this laboratory work.


16 thoughts on “Columbia Professor Strips In Bizarre Lecture On Quantum Mechanics”

  1. Good thing the absent minded prof didn’t go commando that day. It must be a brilliant tactic, after all he’s an Ivy Leaguer.

  2. Bravo! When I was teaching at B.U., there were no Blackberrys, etc.,but you still had to grab your audience’s attention and shake them out of their apathy or complacency. I never stripped. Good grief! It would never have occurred to me way back when. Besides Boston police would have tossed me in the paddy wagon to be hauled off to the pokey ASAP. So I had to rely on other creative tactics, but nothing so eye- and mind-opening!

    I find cell phone usage so ubiquitous, mindless, and uncivil. I’d hate to be trying to teach now and have to deal with that ear- or thumb-attached appendageholding their interest. I may have gained a lot of patience and tolerance over the years, but not for putting up with cell phone discourtesy in class.

  3. I second (or third) it, good for him What a sad commentary to get them away from their phones, text, etc he had to resort to this. I think maybe the getting you to strip of preconceived notions may have been a way to explain it within the confines of legitimacy for the school and naysayers.

  4. You know the old saying…

    When you are lying in a coffin,
    It is never hard to think outside the box…

  5. Students should just leave their i-phones and the likes at home. It seems like so many people are married to those devices lately, especially those under 25. I can see the need for this professor to break the focus away from the students twiddling their thumbs while text messaging but this went a bit too far.

    My wife has to deal with coworkers text messaging at work a lot. Even though it is against company rules to do so the rule is widely ignored. She works at a hospital and patients view this as insulting because the other nurses have the time to twiddle their thumbs but not to answer the call button quickly or at least that is what they assume in their minds. It’s irritating to my wife as well.

  6. At least he kep his underwear on. If it got the point across,then he succeeded. It is one lecture those students will not forget.

  7. I agree with Bettykath. Having in a small way tried to learn something about quantum mechanics I’ve found it daunting to wrap my head around its concepts. Hughes was being creative in introducing his course and I applaud his efforts. I’m not sure though that Our Professor would have the need to follow a similar procedure in teaching a Torts class, though from what I remember from more than 40 years ago it did require dropping some preconceptions.

  8. “I’ve been tasked with the impossible challenge of teaching you quantum mechanics in one hour.”

    The first thing he had to do was get their attention. And make the point that “In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have to strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain, and start over again”

    I think he made a good and creative effort.

  9. That’s the problem with folks… They have preconceived ideals of how classes should be run…

    How better than examples….

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