How to Introduce Physics to Your Friends?

My friends know I’m a bookworm and often greet me with, “What are you reading?”  This past week I’ve been causally replying, “A book on physics.”   To which all my friends give me a strange look that asks, “Why the f#@* would you want to do that?”  Last night, when Janis asked, and gave me the same facial response, I felt compelled to try and explain myself, but I came up short.  How do you quickly sum up the beauty of physics in a few sentences?

Later, while driving home, I wondered if there were any books to give my friends that would introduce them to physics.  Is there any physics book that the average person would be willing to try?  I flipped through some popular titles and textbooks on my bookshelves and immediately knew they wouldn’t do.  I went to the bookstore and looked at intro books like Physics for Dummies, Physics Demystified and Head First Physics.  The answer was still a big “No Way!”

Is there a way to introduce physics in a short blog essay?  Physics is a very big subject, beginning with the smallest objects in reality and ranging up to the very largest.  This made me think of the videos Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames and Cosmic Voyage, the Imax movie narrated by Morgan Freeman.  If my friends could watch those videos on a big screen television and study them I think it would be a fantastic start.  They are easy to understand but have a huge sense of wonder impact.  However, I’m not sure if the crude versions found on the Internet will be that inspiring.  I did find a DVD copy Cosmic Voyage at Amazon for $8.99.

Thinking about these impressive films got me to wondering if it might be possible to introduce physics by showing DVDs that illustrate the most exciting aspects of physics.  Are any physics documentaries good enough that if I lent them to my friends they’d come back and ask if I had any more great DVDs like that one?  I’ll order Cosmic Voyage and give it a try.

How Big is the Universe?

I do believe understanding the Powers of Ten is a key starting place.  I have the original Powers of Ten book by Charles and Ray Eames and studying it really helps to grasp the scope of the world of physics.  It’s very important to teach people the size of the universe, from the very smallest to the largest and get a feel for scientific notation.  Recently The National Geographic Channel showed the documentary, “Journey to the Edge of the Universe.”  This beautiful film uses state of the art computer animation to survey the macroverse from Earth to the edge of the Universe.

The value of the visuals is diminished by not knowing the numbers behind glorious images, so that’s why I think a good understanding of the Powers of Ten video should come first.

Time

Physicists now think in terms of trillions of years.  Right now, I can’t think of any documentaries to teach about time.  I love all those analogies about the history of the universe and life on Earth, comparing time since the Big Bang to one year, and then explaining that human civilization is just the last couple of seconds of that year.  I need to track down a great documentary on time.

Motion

Classical physics is about motion.  Knowing about distance and time prepares us for studying movement.  Again I can’t think of any standout documentaries.  DVD courses like “The Great Ideas of Classical Physics” from The Teaching Company come to mind, but I don’t think I’ll get my friends to sit through its 24 lectures.

If only the series The Mechanical Universe were easily available.  If you follow the link you can register and watch small Windows Media coded versions online for free, but it costs $450 for a set of 52 thirty minute episodes on 12 DVDs.  Again, not something my friends are likely to pursue.  The great thing about The Mechanical Universe, the 1985 PBS television series, is its an introductory course to physics from California Institute of Technology.  What made the show really stand out was the mathematical animation by Jim Blinn – if only all math courses included such animation.  It’s sad that the tiny free Internet versions also have tiny impact.

Electromagnetism

You’d think I wouldn’t have to promote the teaching of electromagnetism because our society depends so much this technology that was first discovered in the 18th and 19th century and turned into tech magic in the 20th.  But how many people know that magnets are used to generate electricity?  Or that electricity can be used to turn a piece of iron into a magnet?  I think when Arthur C. Clarke said his famous phrase, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” he was referring to far future technology, but for the average person, all modern technology is magical.  Does the public even understand the relationship between quantum physics and televisions?

Weak and Strong Forces

Exploring the world of the very tiny means understanding the building blocks of nature.  It also brings us closer to understanding how something came out of nothing.  And isn’t it strange that the only science that fundamentalist terrorists pursue is the one that leads to atomic bombs?  Again, I can’t think of a good film to illustrate this area of physics, although quantum physics is often covered in documentaries.  I’m hoping the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will generate tons of news and documentaries in the coming years so maybe my physics pooh-poohing friends will even remember its name.

Gravity

Probably most people have seen documentaries about gravity.  All kids are taught about Galileo and Newton, but I doubt people know that NASA is planning a series of gravity probes like LISA and Big Bang Observer.  These deep space instruments will study colliding stars, ripples in space-time, and echoes of the early universe.  There is no way to explain the magnitude of this research.  The only analogy I can think of is if Christians built a time machine and went back to the Garden of Eden to interview God.  The more science studies the Big Bang the closer we come to understanding the Genesis of our physical reality.  How can my friends think this is boring?

How Limited is Your View of Reality?

An earlier draft of this essay pursued the idea that people who ignored physics chose to have a small view of reality.  I referenced my earlier blog post, “What Shape is the Universe?” where I was going to chide my friends for living in a small dinky universe of only a few magnitudes of dimension.  I can’t help think that many of the failings of our societies on Earth are due to only reacting to nearby reality without trying to see the big picture.  Would Israelis and Palestinians be killing each other if they all understood how big reality is and how small their feud?  Shouldn’t the whole Arab-Jew conflict resolve when they see their religions disappear in the light of science?  Israel and Gaza are probably less than two electrons in comparative size if we relate the size of our world to the Universe.

On the other hand, if humans are the crown of creation, the pinnacle of 13.7 billion years of evolution, then we are big things indeed.  But if we kill each other like viruses are we really all that evolved or intelligent?  As long as our guiding knowledge comes from speculation about reality derived three thousand years ago by nomadic people closer to cave men than to us, is there any wonder why science is ignored?  Most of my friends are well educated, with very few even concerned with religion, but people who base their knowledge on the humanities and literature are still stuck in the past.  Most of our social customs and beliefs developed during the Middle Ages.  Science is the only systematic pursuit of knowledge that consistently succeeds in explaining reality, but it’s a relatively recent development and hasn’t fully integrated into human behavior and thought.

We build our society on the handmaiden of science, technology, but we ignore the wisdom of science.  I’m intrigued by the idea of The Third Culture proposed by John Brockman.  Brockman gets his idea from C. P. Snow who wrote a book called The Two Cultures, comparing literary intellectuals and scientists, and suggests that a third culture would form when the two merged.

This makes me think of flipping through a university catalog of courses.  You can divide them into science base courses and all others, usually what we might call the humanities, or practical courses like business and law.  What Brockman seems to be saying, until the humanities and the rest of university courses are based on science, even with areas like the study of English literature, we won’t begin to see the true value of science pervade society.  Now the idea that science might infuse with all areas of knowledge could be a science fictional dream, but it is something I hope for, because until then the average person will think physics is boring.

JWH 1/11/9

8 Responses

  1. Interesting post. ^_^
    Made me remember a book called A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson.

  2. You shouldn’t have to. Every adult living in our modern world should understand the basic principles of physics, at least for mechanics, electromagnetism, gravity, and thermodynamics. At least all from a good high school.

  3. And Mike, how is that philosophy working out with the people you meet? I know my friends, some with multiple college degrees can’t meet that expectation.

    Varda, I’ve read A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson and it’s an excellent book. Bryson wrote it when he decided late in life to catch up on the world of science. Another science overview book that’s very easy to read with a snappy narrative is The Canon by Natalie Angier.

  4. I agree with you, James. Our education system is failing us. Kids in high school have to take four years of English because “reading and writing are important,” even though most of that is devoted to largely useless literary criticism (and remember I’m a writer and lover of reading saying this). Four years of math? Of science? Not so much in the requirements. Physics in particular is often a class that is only available to some students their senior year, and not required. Even when students take it, it winds up being an arcane task in applying abstract formulas. Then, in college, science is required in most programs but it tends to be 2 or 3 intro courses and physics can be avoided in favor of things like biology, astronomy, geology, and even chemistry is seen as easier and more accessible than physics. Even though we often have “dumbed down” physics where the calculus gets stripped out, and there are versions written “for poets.”

    I’m leaning toward systems where physics, the fundamental science, gets taught first. I mean, this is stuff about where a ball goes when you throw it. It’s how things work! And how about the internet, TV, telephone, mp3 player, car, etc.? All the stuff that we live and depend on daily (kids especially) depend on basic physics. It’s just incredible that the world today is magic to so many, and they don’t feel it a personal imperative to understand it.

    My educational approach, to more directly address your issue, is to get people interested enough to want to learn on their own. Talking about dark energy, unified theories and proton decay (or lack thereof), way too abstract, but this is what we see in newspapers. TV shows about how things work would make a stronger approach. Relate physics to things people are interested in, whether that’s particular technologies, sports, cars, etc.

    Find an angle. Try a website on the physics of baseball: http://webusers.npl.uiuc.edu/~a-nathan/pob/ for your sports fans. Start with rainbows for the nature lovers, perhaps, or technophiles who see the reflections off of CDs and DVDs. There’s a nice book on the Physics of Superheroes. There are people putting together physics for all sorts of interests. It’s a way to start. I think general physics books, even very good ones, are off-putting to most people as you have found.

    And for the record, I use Powers of Ten and Cosmic Voyage with some of my students. They are pretty impressive, although size scales is only a starting place.

  5. [...] James Wallace Harris asks about how to introduce physics to your friends? Indeed, not easy if they missed it in school, which is too easy to do. Share and Enjoy: These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web pages. [...]

  6. James, where have you been all week?

  7. Thanks for the info, James.
    Will read the book.

  8. I totally agree that physics is widely overlooked, as a subject in school it is often taught extremely badly, yes alot of people understand the basic principles of physics but what make it interesting and beautiful is looking at it from the perspective of how everything relates to one another. When you look at gravity for example, its a fact that gravity is the force which causes things to collide with the earth and fall, it is interesting because everything with a mass has a unique gravitational pull of its own, everything wants to draw together in some way, two atoms floating around in a vaccum are attracted towards each other.

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