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Honors Relativity – Spring 2012

Instructor: Dr. Duncan Lorimer

Contact details:

Overview: In 1905, Albert Einstein published five remarkable papers. One of them described his special theory of relativity – a radical revision of the kinematics of rapidly moving objects that requires the unification of space and time. A decade later, Einstein succeeded in generalizing his theory to include the effects of gravitation. We will explore his remarkable scientific legacy that describes gravity as the geometry of four-dimensional spacetime.

Prerequisites: A curiosity about the world we live in, and a willingness to open your mind to new and unfamiliar concepts. The aim of this course is to understand Einstein’s work by reasoning graphically and conceptually. Traditionally, relativity is a mathematical subject. While we will work through some basic mathematical arguments from time to time, we will not assume anything more than high-school trigonometry. To make quantitative estimates of certain situations, we will sometimes use formulae that will be introduced and given to you in class. A calculator might be helpful from time to time.

Reading material: All material will be handed out in class. Students are encouraged to use the University library and the Internet to find out more about the topics we will discuss.

Assessment: Attendance and participation (60%); Problem sets (15%); Movie (25%)

Grading: 90% or higher A+; 80-89% A; 70-79% B; 60-69% C; 50-59% D

Homework: Three problem sets will be distributed during the semester. The format of the problems will be conceptual (thinking about ideas introduced in class and making deductive reasoning), visual (drawing spacetime diagrams to analyze situations, e.g. falling into a black hole) and numerical (using formulae to calculate example values, e.g. how long does it take to fall into a black hole). We will discuss each problem set in detail in class after you have worked through the homework. Each set will count 5% towards your final grade. It is acceptable to discuss homework problems with your fellow students, but I expect that you complete them on your own in accordance with academic honesty.

Movie: On day one of class, you will be presented with a list of possible documentary topics. Your task, working in groups of 2 or 3 students, is to put together a short (<5 min) video documentary describing the topic. Further details about putting the documentary together will be given in class. The movie counts for 25% of your final grade and needs to be sent to me by April 19.

Social justice statement: I aim to maintain a positive learning environment based upon open communication, mutual respect, and non-discrimination. Our University does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, age, disability, veteran status, religion, sexual orientation, color or national origin. I welcome any suggestions as to how to further such a positive and open environment in this class.

Academic dishonesty statement: It is assumed that you will follow the University’s policies on academic honesty during this course. Students found engaging in plagarism, cheating or forgery during any assignment or test will be subject to the conduct code policies of the University that can be found on-line at

Class schedule: The format of each class is either a lecture, mostly using the chalkboard, or a discussion of the homework. Bring a pencil and paper to take notes and be prepared to participate!