Watching the clock: physics class explores time

Juliann Guerra, Crier Staff

Time seems to be something that runs our lives, whether there is too much time on our hands or not enough. There are songs about time and movies that have people travel through it.  But what is time?  Or rather, what is a clock?  Is it simply something that likes to scream at us until we wake up and remind us we are running late, or is it something more?

Professor Durham, a mathematical physicist—because he has yet to receive answers good enough for his multitude of “why” questions—has created a class entitled “The Nature and Origins of Time” to help explore some of these issues.

The course examines what time is and from where the concept originates as well as what time means at the most basic level and how it appears in complex systems. The idea for the class came to Professor Durham at a conference five years ago, and after spending years putting all of the details of the course together, he was able to submit the course for approval last February. Now the class is on the permanent cycle of courses and fulfills the Scientific Reasoning core requirement.

Two freshmen Katrina Thaibinh, a social work major, and Kayla Marino, a Criminal Justice and Psychology double major, both originally took the class because it fulfilled their scientific awareness. Katrina enjoys learning about gravity and light in this class and believes that all physics majors would greatly enjoy and benefit from it.

Kayla was interested in time perception, and this class has inspired her to consider a minor in forensic science and/or neuroscience. Both agree that the class is challenging with its complex concepts, but fascinating with Professor Durham always willing to sit and talk with his students until they grasp the material. There are no stupid questions in this class. Prof. Durham says that it is more important to him that his students can understand and have a conversation about the ideas they discuss in class than it is to be able to solve an algebra problem.

Although both girls said they might have benefited from taking a pre-requisite physics class before jumping into The Nature and Origins of Time, Prof. Durham does not believe it would necessarily be helpful. This class discusses theories that a standard physics class would not teach.  He believes the difficulty comes from his students needing to think like physicists, which he admits is hard to teach.

This class is one of a kind, so much so that Professor Durham is still trying to write the textbook. And although his students have access to his notes, it is still a work in progress and Prof. Durham is learning through teaching what needs and does not need to be included in the textbook.  He says that testing out what he has in the classroom is the best way for him to figure out if he is properly getting his ideas across and he knows it will take a few more classes before it is perfect.