Fifth Edition of “Exploring Quantum Physics” to Launch on Coursera

Charles Clark and Victor Galitski will launch the fifth edition of their Coursera class on quantum physics Jan. 20, 2020. Alireza Parhizkar, a UMD graduate student will serve as teaching assistant.

“The course begins by establishing the conceptual grounds of quantum mechanics and promises an exciting journey,” says Parhizkar, who joined Galitski’s research group in the summer of 2019. “It fulfills this promise by immersing the learner in advanced subjects of quantum physics, like superconductivity and path integrals, and illustrating them with colorful exercises.”   coursera cats bannerTwo JQI Fellows will launch the fifth edition of "Exploring Quantum Physics" on Coursera Jan. 20. (Credit: Anna Bogatin)

The free course, titled “Exploring Quantum Physics,” explains topics in quantum physics at a level appropriate for an advanced undergraduate or beginning graduate student. The previous four editions had a total of about 100,000 enrollees, with roughly 2,000 people completing the course. “That’s a good number for a massive open online course, or MOOC,” says Clark, who is an Adjunct Professor of Physics, a Fellow of the Joint Quantum Institute (JQI), and a Fellow at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Clark adds that the new edition of the course has a revised grading system as well as updated homework and exam questions.

“Exploring Quantum Physics” consists of eight weeks of video lectures, with a number of five- to fifteen-minute videos per week. The videos include voluntary ungraded quizzes, which automatically pause the presentation so that students have an opportunity to answer relevant questions. There are also weekly homework assignments—some will include reading historical papers by influential early quantum scientists such as Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr—as well as a final exam. “We tried to strike a balance between providing a historical perspective on the early development of quantum physics and modern concepts,says Galitski, who holds the Chesapeake Chair of Theoretical Physics at the University of Maryland (UMD).

An advantage of MOOCs is that the course material is available to anyone, including some students who are younger than traditional undergraduates. Khadija Niazi and her twin brother Muhammad, who grew up in Pakistan, were 13 years old when they enrolled in an earlier edition of the course. Khadija, who once spoke about her experience with MOOCs at the World Economic Forum, says that she “thoroughly enjoyed that course [e]specially because of the peer's help and Charles Clark's constant help and encouragement in the forums.” Before beginning the quantum physics course, the twins had completed some introductory physics classes on the site and learned some calculus from videos on YouTube. Muhammad says that they wanted “to get a taste of what lies ahead.”

Both Niazi siblings stayed in contact with Clark after completing the class. Muhammad, who went on to publish his first experimental physics paper in the journal Royal Society Open Science when he was 16, says he will probably take the new edition of the course to solidify his understanding of the content.

Michael Winer, a physics graduate student at UMD, took an earlier edition of the course when he was a 10th grader at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Maryland because he hoped to do physics research over the summer. “By far the greatest thing that came out of my taking the course was that I contacted professor Galitski and did research with him for two summers,” Winer says. “This was my first real research experience, and taught me a lot about the scientific process.” That work led Winer to win the Intel Science Talent Search competition in 2015, earning him a prize of $150,000 and a meeting with President Obama.

“Exploring Quantum Physics” is now open for enrollment. To learn more about the course and to see a detailed syllabus, please visit the landing page at Coursera.

Original story by by Jillian Kunze

Physics in Florence

As part of the University of Maryland’s Education Abroad program, eligible students are welcome to apply for the the Physics in Florence semester, held at the International Studies Institute (ISI). Prof. Luis Orozco has been responsible for the program, which enrolled 12 students in the Fall of 2019. The curriculum includes three physics classes, an Italian language course, and an elective such as studio art, art history, history and political science, Italian language and literature, international business, and interdisciplinary studies in the humanities.  

One of this fall’s highlights was a visit to the Biblioteca Nazionale, located near the ISI.  Orozco and the students were able to see several of Galileo's original documents, including his log of experiments with inclined planes, his drawings of Jupiter's moons, and his watercolor of the moon's phases.

Another trip was to Geneva, where the students visited CERN. At the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) experiment, UMD postdoc Markus Seidel gave the students a tour of the detector, and graduate student Nathan Evetts of the University of British Columbia explained the workings of the Antiproton Ring. 

David Reitze, director of the U.S. gravitational observatory (LIGO), helped arrange a visit to the European Gravitational Observatory (EGO) near Pisa. Valerio Boschi hosted the students and explained the Virgo instrument and its interaction with the two LIGO interferometers in Louisiana and Washington state. After Boschi provided an extensive tour, EGO director Stavros Katsanevas met the students and discussed the current and future physics goals of EGO. 

Near the end of the term, students visited the Galileo Museum, in the Palazzo Castellani near their ISI classes.  The museum houses intriguing scientific instruments, including those of the Medici and the Grand Dukes of Tuscany. Examples include sextants, astrolabes, solar clocks, globes of various orientations, thermometers, telescopes, vacuum pumps and a Ptolemaic mechanical model showing the universe rotating around the earth.  Maps from the 16th century show remarkable accuracy, particularly for the east coast of North America and both sides of South America. Explorers Amerigo Vespucci and Giovanni da Verrazano were both natives of Florence.

At the center of the museum, the Galileo room highlights his contributions to mechanics with a reproduction of one of the inclined plane machines that he used to measure the relationship between time and distance under acceleration. There are also good references to his astronomical observations, with one of the original lenses of his telescope in place.

On a painted table of chemical affinities, the class spotted a symbol that looks like an h bar (ℏ, or Planck’s constant). Having learned about Planck’s constant in class, the students wondered about the symbol’s origin. Orozco found that it was originally a sickle, and that it had stood for lead in alchemy and for Saturn in astrology. Why had Planck called it h? Orozco found that it may reference Hilfsgröße, which is the concept of a “helpful quantity.” This helpful quantity has opened a new world of understanding, much as Galileo did when he found that the distance traveled in fixed time intervals on his inclined plane is proportional to odd numbers (1,3,5,7, etc.)—a classical and early lesson in physics.

For further information about Physics in Florence, contact Lindsey Sitler, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Trips to the Biblioteca Nazionale,CERN, EGO and the Galileo Museum are shown in these photos by Adam Dirccam, Anthony Giuffre, Stefano Baldassarri, Sean Markey and Cameron Moneypenny.



Janet Das Sarma, 1971 - 2019

Janet Das Sarma, who managed the Condensed Matter Theory Center (CMTC) for the last decade, died on December 2, 2019 at the age of 48 years.

DasSarma janetShe received a diagnosis of stage 4 metastatic cancer in 2016 and was given a four-month life expectancy, but lived 43 months while undergoing nine separate therapies. Despite these grueling protocols, she continued to carry out all her CMTC duties. On October 25th, she was honored at the Physics staff awards luncheon for her comprehensive efforts in moving the CMTC from the Toll to the Atlantic Building. Her disease took a sudden, decisive bad turn in early November, and she died in December at home, looking at her favorite garden.

Janet ensured that CMTC faculty, postdocs, students and visitors could pursue their scientific interests unhindered by bureaucratic inconvenience. Her careful handling of applications and recommendations helped an immense number of CMTC alumni secure their professorial appointments at various institutions.

She regarded as her greatest accomplishment the raising of her sons, Andrew and Matthew.


Ellen Williams Named Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science

Ellen D. Williams, a Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Physics and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at the University of Maryland, has been named a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Election as a AAAS Fellow is an honor bestowed upon AAAS members by their peers, because of their scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications.

“I am honored to receive this award and delighted that it affirms the important role of scientists in providing clear technical assessments to support policy decisions,” Williams said.   Williams E

Williams came to UMD in 1981 for a postdoctoral fellowship and rose to the rank of professor by 1991. At Maryland, she established an internationally recognized research program in experimental surface science, exploring fundamental issues in statistical mechanics and nanotechnology. She also pioneered the use of very powerful electron scanning, tunneling microscopes to study the surface of materials like silicon at the atomic level. In 1996, Williams founded the University of Maryland Materials Research Science and Engineering Center, serving as its director until 2009. 

Williams served as the chief scientist for British Petroleum (BP) from 2010 to 2014, before her confirmation by the U.S. Senate as the director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) on Dec. 8, 2014. Launched with bipartisan support in 2009, ARPA-E’s mission is to advance high-potential, high-impact energy technologies that are too early in development for private-sector investment. 

Williams returned to UMD in January 2017. Since then, she has been working to bridge policy and technology perspectives for clean energy innovation. Recently, she completed a report to the State of Maryland on “The Present Status and Future Potential of Maryland’s Clean Energy Innovation System.

“Dr. Williams is continuing the long tradition of accomplished physicists turning their attention and skills to tackling major policy issues of the day—in her case, climate change and energy policy,” said Steven Rolston, professor and chair of the UMD Department of Physics. “We are lucky to have someone with her talents contributing to these issues, which are among most pressing facing humanity."

Williams has a distinguished history of professional service, including chairing the development of the National Academy of Sciences’ 2002 report on “Technical Issues Related to the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty” and providing extensive technical advice to the U.S. government, primarily through the Departments of Energy and Defense. As a member of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, Williams co-authored the 2009 final report titled “America’s Strategic Posture,” which provided more than 100 findings and recommendations on critical issues related to the U.S. nuclear strategy.

Williams received her bachelor's degree in chemistry from Michigan State University in 1976 and her Ph.D. in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1981. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a foreign member of the Royal Society (London). She is also a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Physical Society, and the American Vacuum Society. Williams has also been recognized by awards from the American Physical Society and the Materials Research Society.

Williams is one of 443 AAAS members to be named as a Fellow this year. New Fellows will be formally announced in the AAAS News & Notes section of the journal Science on November 29, 2019, and will be presented with an official certificate and a rosette pin on Saturday, February 15, 2020 during the AAAS Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington.


Physics Staff Members Honored at Annual Luncheon

Five members of the Department of Physics were honored at an October luncheon held in the lobby of the Physical Sciences Complex. 
The Chair's Award for Outstanding Service was given to Mark Conners. One nominator called him "an incredible asset to faculty and staff at the Physics Department, and in particular to young assistant professors who start out on a faculty job with a range of non-trivial financial and procedural matters they need to deal with right away."
The Sibylle Sampson Award was given to Samantha Suplee. She was nominated for planning and coordinating the North American Conference on Trapped Ions (NACTI). "Pulling this together required quick thinking and creative solutions. Her energy, drive, positive attitude and friendly manner have made this conference a success."
The Staff Excellence Award was given to three employees.
  • Janet Das Sarma. She was cited for her "tremendous organization and coordination" in arranging the Condensed Matter Theory Center's move from the Toll Building to a new suite in the Atlantic Building. "She spent an enormous amount of time and attention to detail to make this happen.  I commend her for this effort!"
  • Donna Hammer.  "Donna Hammer puts her life and soul into this department and it shows. She gives so much of her time and effort into making this place comforting for women in undergrad and beyond and fosters the personal and professional development needed so we can succeed. She is constantly branching out to do new and innovative things."
  • Kristin Stenson.  She was nominated for her contributions to CNAM – including event planning, graphics development and outreach activities – as it was renamed the Quantum Materials Center. She was cited for "exceptional service, commitment and tremendous contribution to the center and its development."