WATCH: Columbia Prof’s Freshman Science Lecture Includes Stripping, Ninjas, 9/11 Videos

Will this be on the final exam?

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Whether you were the kind of college student who sat in the front row, dutifully taking notes, or the kind who sat in the back and slept through every lecture, we are almost certain you never sat through a class like this one.

Emlyn Hughes, a physics professor at Columbia University who teaches an undergraduate course called “Frontiers of Science,” started a quantum mechanics lecture with a terrifying stunt, according to campus publications Bwog and the Columbia Daily Spectator.

While Lil Wayne’s “Drop It Like It’s Hot” plays in the dimly-lit room, Hughes slowly takes off his clothes until he’s standing in his underwear. Then he puts on new garb, dressing from head to toe in black — like a ninja. He curls up in the fetal position while an accomplice — also clad in black — places stuffed animals on stools and blindfolds them. Another ninja emerges with a sword and stabs one of the creatures.

Meanwhile, a big screen shows video of the September 11th attacks, Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, and Nazi Germany.

“In order to learn quantum mechanics, you have to strip to your raw, erase all the garbage from your brain, and start over again,” Hughes says in the video.

But some students believe Hughes has more explaining to do. As Maura Barry-Garland ’16 told the Columbia Daily Spectator:

“He didn’t explain it or provide a context, and that’s why it was offensive to me and to other people…This is a school in New York…I’m sure lots of people have personal connections to what happened here on 9/11, or have family members who died during World War II.”

The professor’s performance may not be the hardest thing his students will have to comprehend this year. In a 2010 interview, Hughes told Columbia College Today that a typical exam score in his introductory physics courses is 65%.

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7 comments
A-Columbia-Student
A-Columbia-Student like.author.displayName 1 Like

As a student in that class that day, I feel the need to remind everyone that quantum mechanics has serious real world applications including the creation of nuclear weapons. Frontiers of science is about making connections between the sciences we study and how they influence the world around us. Just think of the consequences had Nazi Germany gained access to the knowledge that physicists were developing. It could have drastically changed the outcome of the war. In an age faced with terrorism nuclear proliferation is a legitimate concern. This presentation forces us to consider the implications of quantum mechanics. 

CU2016
CU2016 like.author.displayName 1 Like

@A-Columbia-Student I am a CU student as well, who actually had this professor for an intro class last semester. I was not in this specific class however I heard many students discussing it afterwards.

Professor Hughes is definitely a tough (and outlandish) professor but he loves his job and tries his best to have students engaged at all times. I can say with confidence that he did not do this to insult or make anyone extremely uncomfortable, he did this to remain engaging.

Although the images are linked, they are meant to portray a different type of message, one that @A-Columbia-Student  shares above. Hughes is emphasizing the potential of quantum physics; quantum physics is the root of technology that can destroy our world. He invites students, with his short explanation at the end of the video, to clear their minds and open up to the possibilities of the world. Before Nazi Germany, people never thought one man could systematically kill so many people without being stopped. Before Osama bin Laden, Americans thought they were ultimately safe from danger. While these events have left a negative impact on our world, they have shown mankind the potential evil in our world. (With that being said, quantum physics also has potential to leave a positive impact on our world as well). 

Professor Hughes perhaps should have toned down the outlandishness in his lecture, but he is working to engage students from Columbia College (not the engineering school). Many people in the audience are humanities majors so their minds are closed off from the difficult physics field.

And just on a final side note, the captions and headlines for this story are totally misleading. It makes it sound like Hughes performed a strip tease to photos of 9-11 and Nazis. Of course, the media is taking this story and running with it in a wrongful way. Hughes may have crossed the line (which I don't think was intentional) but he is trying his best to be engaging, inspiring, and memorable. Where is that happy medium?

Not-A-Columbia-Student
Not-A-Columbia-Student

@A-Columbia-Student 

You're absolutely right. And that paragraph right there is exactly what the professor in question should have stated outright instead of presenting this bizarre performance art/midlife crisis/acid trip. He's effectively trivializing those very legitimate concerns by "making a point". Now I was not there and I have never been a student at Columbia, but from my perspective this guy seems like the type of professor that will do outlandish things in order to keep his students interested (I think the fact that it was a Freshman science lecture supports my theory). I think this is simply a case of a guy who didn't think things through. Professors can be idiots too.


BTW kudos to MauraBarry-Garland for tracking down her misquotation and setting it straight. Poor reporting is poor reporting and should be treated as such.

theimprobableone
theimprobableone

@Not-A-Columbia-Student @A-Columbia-Student Actually, that "idiot" professor was on the team at CERN and was among many physicists who helped find the Higgs Boson. As someone who was there, I can say that the lecture was neither terrifying nor trivial. It served to grab our attention and make us think about the global consequences of nuclear power. 

LVK60
LVK60

Just when I gave up on academics being too dry.

MauraBarry-Garland
MauraBarry-Garland like.author.displayName 1 Like

Lovely, I'm going to have to do this on every article that copied the quote used in the Spectator article instead of doing independent research or contacting anyone involved.


Anyway, I'm quoted above as saying, "He didn't explain it or provide a context, and that's why it was offensive to me and to other people.”

What I meant by that comment was that, though the images themselves weren't inappropriate, they were not appropriate in the context in which he presented them. When I was in elementary school and 9/11 occurred, my class was shown footage of the attacks. I believe that viewing those images helped us to understand the gravity of the situation, and I don't think powerful images should be repressed. However, Hughes was not using the images to help us empathize with victims of terrorist attacks. He was using them to make an awkward metaphor about quantum mechanics, to wake up the class, and to get himself more attention. I didn't feel that was an appropriate use of the footage, especially since many of the hundreds of students in the auditorium were personally affected by the 9/11 attacks.

It should also be noted that this is a core class, so none of the students present chose to enroll in this class and none of us are able to drop it.

It would be amazing if you could remove your "quotes" from me. Spectator paraphrased the statement I told the reporter originally and none of the writers who have subsequently copy-pasted my comments have bothered to contact me about it. 

--Maura Barry-Garland