Samuel E. Gralla

Teaching and Learning General Relativity

General relativity is a fascinating subject that has an undue reputation for difficulty.  The index notation makes expressions look difficult, but this is quickly overcome by doing problems.  The concepetual difficulties are real, but that is exactly what makes relativity so interesting.   My attitude toward teaching the subject is to focus on the physics, make sure to mention the precise formal mathematics, and make absolutely sure that everybody in the class, no matter how weak their background or current understanding, knows how to do index manipulations.  I do not shy away from "rote learning" in the latter goal, as for many it is easiest to first learn how to calculate and only then learn the mathematical and physical meaning.  Unless the student has already had an exceptional special relativity class, successfully learning general relativity usually involves a complete revolution in the way one thinks about classical physics.  I try to make sure that as little as possible gets in the way of each student achiving her personal breakthrough.

I have developed my ideas about teaching relativity through being a teaching assistant for undergraduate courses and a guest lecturer in graduate courses.  My experiences have been overwhelmingly positive.  Even the students that don't completely succeed appear to enjoy the course.  I particularly recommend that all physics majors take an undergraduate class if it is offered.  By the end of a semester you'll know what a black hole is, and you might not want to miss that.

Undergraduate Research

I typically have ideas for projects that can be accomplished by undergraduates (or graduate students).  Some training in relativity is helpful, but not necessary for all projects.  In graduate school I supervised then-undergraduate Theo Drivas, leading to this paper.  I am currently supervising Maryland undergraduate Daniel Brennan.  We have completed one project. and Daniel is at work on a second.

If you are interested in relativity research feel free to send me an email or just drop by.