When Columbia College added Frontiers of Science—a required first-year class designed to “develop the habits of mind characteristic of a scientific approach to the world”—to their core curriculum in 2005, they hoped to introduce students to “exciting ideas at the forefront of scientific research.” I took the class in the spring of 2007, but the quantum mechanics section is a bit of a blur. Maybe if Emlyn Hughes had been my teacher that wouldn’t have been the case.
On Monday morning, one-half of the first-year class started their physics section with a breakout performance from Hughes. For reasons that are still not entirely clear, Hughes walked onstage to the Lil’ Wayne version of “Drop It Like It’s Hot,” then stripped down to his underwear while eating a banana. He put his clothes back on and curled up into a ball. It only gets weirder, and more disturbing, from there. What appear to be stuffed animals are impaled as footage of the World Trade Center attack, Osama bin Laden, and Hitler are shown on the screen in the background.
A quick peak at his CULPA reviews—Columbia’s student-run professor-ranking site—seem to suggest that this is not typical behavior, though the Columbia Spectator does cite a similar incident in 2011 involving nude photos of Woodstock attendees. Interviewed in Columbia College Today in 2010, Hughes said the “biggest challenge in teaching a large introductory physics course at Columbia is reaching students with enormously varied backgrounds.” Perhaps this is his solution.
In the video, Hughes, who joined the Columbia faculty in 2006—he got a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences in 1987—and whose primary research is the study of new particles and new interactions using the Large Hadron Collider, attempts to explain his performance as a way of preparing the class for the complexity of the subject. “In order to learn quantum mechanics,” he says, “you have strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain, and start all over again.”
The effectiveness of Frontiers of Science has been debated extensively since it was instituted, and the class has been widely criticized by both science-oriented and humanities-oriented students. This bit of performance art by Professor Hughes may not have been the most convincing case for its continued necessity. Perhaps he should have followed the lead of what, until yesterday, was the best known Web video about Frontiers of Science, and just written a rap instead.