Physics 351 - Physics Research Seminar

Instructor: R. P. Springer, 208-A Physics, 660-2676,

Meeting: Wednesdays 7:30pm to 9:30pm Faculty Lounge (234 Physics)
Plus Departmental Colloquia


Weekly evening seminars lasting approximately two hours;  members of the physics department present topics of their research or currently interesting subject matter, at the level of entering graduate students. General Physics Colloquia attendence

Speaker Schedule

Audience and Prerequisites

All entering physics graduate students must attend; other graduate students, undergraduates, as well as faculty and staff are welcome to attend.


To become a scientist you must learn how to write papers and proposals in collaboration with others. In this course you will practice such skills by writing short expositions based upon the presentations. As the semester progresses, it should take you less and less time to complete each week's writing assignment. Even initially it may take less than two hours per week. Let me know if you are spending more time than this.

There are 13 weeks of presentations. For most of these weeks, there will be two presentations per week. We will call these presentation A and presentation B. For each week, you will be matched with a writing partner (see Writing Matches) for the schedule.

Randomly, half the pairs in the class will be assigned to write on presentation A, and the other half will write on presentation B. You will not know which assignment you have until the end of the evening's presentations.

One person from each writing pair will write an "introductory" paragraph on the subject of the presentation (A or B, as assigned). The other person will write a paragraph on a more specific problem, gleaned from the presentation itself and/or by going to see the speaker and/or by reading from the speaker's papers. After each member of the pair has written his/her assigned paragraph (the introductory or the specific), he/she will provide it to the other member of the pair who will edit, critique, etc. Then the members of the pair will come together to create an exposition consisting of an introductory paragraph and a specific example paragraph. Make sure that that the two paragraphs form a coherent story, are matching in style, etc. Aim for an audience at the level of incoming graduate students.

Due each week will be: (1) The original paragraphs written by each member in the pair and (2) the completed two-paragraph project, as modified and made into a coherent work. I may ask you to re-write a project if it is not satisfactory. I will meet with students individually throughout the semester to give feedback on their writing. I expect to see extensive modifications to the original paragraphs. Note that both people in each pairing are responsible for forming the total coherent work.

Asking Questions

Another important skill you must learn as a scientist is how to ask questions during a seminar or colloquium. Each of you will be expected to ask a number of questions of our presenters during the semester. If this idea tends to make you nervous, you might want to prepare a question in advance. You can do this by looking up the topic of the presentation and doing some advance reading (or simply web-site perusal) on your own. Do not be afraid to ask stupid questions. Set yourself the modest goal of asking five questions during the semester.


Because class participation is a crucial part of this course you are expected to attend each class meeting. If you anticipate having to miss a meeting be sure to notify me well in advance. Typically a student will be expected to make up a missed meeting; for instance by doing individual reading and writing a report on that reading. Of course, illness and accident will happen. If you miss a meeting for which you do not have a valid excuse you risk not receiving credit for the course and having to retake it.

A Word About Plagiarism

The writing assignments from Physics 351 have highlighted two serious issues. The first is the issue of outright plagiarism. The lifting of sentences -- even if minor modifications are introduced -- from a source which is not referenced is unethical. Those who do this will be (and have been) put on probation. I am required to report suspected plagiarism to the Associate Chair. Plagiarism can result in expulsion from Duke.

The second issue is slightly more subtle. Even if a source is referenced, if you have clearly done extensive copying, then you are not completing your assignment. Your assignment is to study a collection of sources; the evening presentation itself, subsequent discussions with the presenter and/or other research group members, reading from Physics Today or of other journals at a similar level, and/or reading articles produced by the group. Summarize from those sources in your own words. That is the only way you can demonstrate -- to yourself and to others -- that you have understood the topic. This work need not be extensive, but it does require independent understanding and independent thinking on your part.

Some of you are learning how to write scientific descriptions for the first time. This may result in early attempts which contain physics concepts which are not that deep, and sentence structure which is not that sophisticated. That is O.K. You are expected to improve as the semester goes along. Read the corrections that I make on the assignments I return to you and try to understand why I made them. Come talk to me if you are unsure. Then, try to incorporate similar improvements into your subsequent submissions. The best way to learn how to write clearly (and eventually with greater ease) is to practice extensively.

For some of you, English is not your native language. This will likely be apparent in your submissions and I will correct whatever problems I see, but note that your primary task is to demonstrate that you understand and can explain clearly a set of physics concepts. Correct location of articles and ordering of words will come with practice.