Monday, November 15, 2004

Physics From Big to Small

So I've been thinking about the outline of a physics class that is based on a fundemental concept in physics, distance scale. (The other fundemental concept that I would consider basing a class on would be energy scale, but I think that might be a bit harder.) Current physics classes are based around separate historical topics (e.g. mechanics, thermodynamics, electricity, magnatism, waves, optics), but there is often very little linkage drawn between the topics, nor are the historical topics presented contextually. An aside from a personal experience:

I was working on a website in the past with a number of different people. One of my co-workers was an education major who had recently had a class in educational technology. Since our website was a semi-educational site, we had a lot of discussions about the use of technology in education. This co-worker brought up that his professor in the educational technology class had said that teaching a class on computers in education was somewhat fruitless. He believed that a computer is a tool, just like a hammer is. We don't have "hammer" classes, when we teach people how to build a house. We present the problem of building a house, and then bring in the hammer later to make our work easier. The computer is the same way in education.

Mechanics, thermo, E&M, et al. are like hammers. In my estimation they are tools that can be used to understand the universe (building a house), but they are not the universe themselves. By teaching only the tools, we run the risk of losing students who could be very good at building a house, but not understanding the details of how a hammer is made or works. The intent behind a class based on a fundemental concept of physics (like distance or energy) is that it forces us to engage the universe itself, and then learn to use the tools in a manner that helps the students learn the universe.

When a class spends its time talking about mechanics at the intro level (in a traditional manner), it does not engage the current research in the field. Newtonian Mechanics as a subject, is a dead matter. It was all covered in the 1700's. But if I use the language of mechanics to drive a discussion about star formation in the arms of spiral galaxies, then I'm in the 21st century. Students who are interested in the house of galaxies can work on building that knowledge of that house, without spending too much time gazing at their hammers.

One other side note: Look through an undergraduate class catalog, focusing on the history department at a very good college. Taking for the granted the fact that physicists consider themselves above historians, do you notice any classes in this list that are devoted solely to "learning how to read English", "learning how to read a primary source", or "learning what we knew way back when, but not telling you that we know it's somewhat wrong now"? No, history classes are based looking at the world as it is (or at least as the professor views it), and then you are expected to pick up the "tools" to learning history as you go. Every class can easily be related to current thought and research on the class topic, without the professor worrying about losing time that should be spent on other topics. Maybe we could take a lesson from these social scientists.

Here's a rough outline for a class. The driving (house) topic is listed first, followed by some of the secondary (hammer) topics that would have to be learned in order to have a good discussion.:

Topic 1 -- Large Scale Structure of the Universe/Gravity/Energy/General Relativity (r~10^9 ly)
Topic 2 -- Galaxies/Light/Motion/Circular Motion/Special Relativity (r~10^5 ly)
Topic 3 -- Clouds of Gas/Stars/Thermodynamcis/Turbulence (r~1 ly)
Topic 4 -- Formation & Structure of Planets/Seizmology/Thermodynamics/Waves (r~10^6 km)
Topic 5 -- Human Structures/Engineering/Statics (r~1 km)
Topic 6 -- Human Body/Motion/Energy (r~1 m)
Topic 7 -- Molecules/Electricity/Magnetism (r~ 10^-6 m)
Topic 8 -- Atoms/Light/Electricity/Magnetism/Quantum (r~10^-9 m)
Topic 9 -- Nuclei/Strong/Weak/QED (r~10^-12m)
Topic 10 -- Stuff that's smaller

Let me know what you think. Obviously, the length of the class (1 vs. 2 semesters) would affect how much you put into the class, as well as the number of class meetings. But I think there's room for alot of fiddling. I have some ideas of how to fill out each of the topics, and that's what I'll be posting on in the next few weeks.


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