Physics beyond exams and classrooms

Physics can be fun even for those who have studied the subject and who do not have to cram and pass examinations

Physics beyond exams and classrooms


Microwave ovens to computers, refrigerators to mobile phones, air travel to advanced surgery -- can we imagine a world without these? But most of us are unaware of what they owe to classical and modern physics.

Physics helps us understand motion, the impact of forces on objects and energy -- heat, light, sound, electricity, magnetism -- and what these can do for us. It thus underpins all the technology that makes our lives easier. But, treated as just another subject to mug up and pass exams, students learning by rote the laws and processes of nature, teachers racing to complete the syllabus, boring textbooks, overriding objective to clear exams, and a lack of inclination to imbibe knowledge for its own sake have taken the magic out of Physics.

American physicist Jearl Walker, in the preface to his revised 10th edition of David Halliday and Robert Resnick's seminal 'Fundamentals of Physics', wrote: “Physics is the most interesting subject in the world because it is about how the world works, and yet the textbooks had been thoroughly wrung of any connection with the real world. The fun was missing."

Perhaps, if there were textbooks like Walker's own 'The Flying Circus of Physics' (2011), which promises to show how physical phenomena, such as high-flying acrobatics and other stunts, and mind-bending illusions, are all a part of everyday life, or Paul Parsons' engagingly-titled 'How to Destroy the Universe: And 34 Other Really Interesting Uses of Physics' (2012), they would better ignite minds.

This indifference to Physics is well described in 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character' (1985), the anecdotal autobiography of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, deemed to be one of the top three physicists of the 20th century -- along with Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking.

Elon Musk used his knowledge of Physics to make himself a household name.

For the complexities of modern physics, Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli's "Seven Brief Lessons on Physics" is unlikely to be surpassed. Less than 100 pages, and containing just a single equation -- that too, mentioned just in passing, it is meant "for those who know little or nothing about modern science".

Beginning with Einstein's general theory of relativity, which he terms "the most beautiful of theories", both for what it explains so simply and what a leap of thinking it represented, Rovelli goes on to deal with quantum mechanics, "where the most baffling aspects of modern physics lurk". Feynman, whose fame was due as much to his innovative and scintillating methods of teaching, offers an absorbing and virtually jargon-free introduction to some key areas of physics in "Six Easy Pieces" (1963), drawn from his famous California Institute of Technology (Caltech) lectures.

This begins with atoms, describing all three common states of matter from the atomic framework, how atoms enable processes -- like salt dissolving in water, and then, how they act in chemical reactions. What follows is an invaluable insight into basic physics, divided into the pre-1920 period, and subsequently, quantum physics.

If you like Feynman's style, then you can also check his "Six Not-so-easy Pieces" (1987), which deals with more challenging and counter-intuitive issues stemming from Einstein's theory of relativity on space and time.

There is also 'The Character of Physical Law' (1965), based on his guest lectures at Cornell University, where he covers, among others, the law of gravitation, the relation of mathematics and physics, the great conservation principles, symmetry, distinction of past and future, probability and uncertainty in the quantum mechanical view of nature, and more.

And then, "Feynman's Tips on Physics: Reflections, Advice, Insights, Practice" (2013), where he takes up topics physics students often struggle with and offers his suggestions on dealing with them.

Physicists Helen Czerski and James Kakalios bring physics right into our daily life with their 'Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life' (2017) and 'Physics of Everyday Things: The Extraordinary Science Behind an Ordinary Day' (2017).

Czerski, who attributes her love for physics by telling us how the means to keep the Hubble Space Telescope fixed on its mission can be demonstrated by a simple trick to distinguish between a raw and boiled egg without removing its shell, also underscores its importance: "Everything you learn will come in useful somewhere else, and it's all one big adventure because you don't know where it will take you next."

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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