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Focus on Physics

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Focus on Physics

- Chapter 04 Homework
- Relative Equilibrium of Fluids
- Activity Science - Force
- Lab Report 1
- 13.12-14
- labreportmuller.pdf
- Acceleration Dlp
- Force
- Day_6_2 (1).pdf
- 4 Effect of Acceleration on Static Fluid
- Fz Ibk F&M p1 Q
- Physics Spm f4
- Moving Load
- MCAT Physics Book, The - Biehle, Garrett [SRG]
- Previous Exam 2009
- SCIENCE EXAM 3M.docx
- Motion Converted
- P10.1 Force and Acceleration
- 2015PhysicsFRQAnswer1
- Gravity

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We all know that to enjoy a game, you how everything in nature is beautifully Mathematical need not mean

must know the rules of the game. Like- interconnected. Physics taught as the computational

wise, to appreciate—and even compre- rules of nature can be among the most Physics has the reputation of being

hend—your environment, you must relevant courses in any school, as edu- overly mathematical, intimidating

understand the rules of nature. Physics cationally mainstream as English and many students who are otherwise at-

is the study of these rules, which show history. tracted to science. My teaching experi-

ence tells me that it’s not mathematics

per se but rather computation that in-

FI G U R E 1 timidates students. That’s an impor-

The laws of nature are expressed in equations, behind each of which are tant distinction. Every serious physics

fascinating stories. course is mathematical, containing

equations. But it also can be noncom-

putational. By postponing problem

solving until a follow-up course, an in-

troductory, noncomputational physics

course can be enjoyed by math whizzes

and math weaklings alike.

The laws of physics are central to any

physics course and are expressed unam-

biguously in equation form (Figure 1).

Although equations have traditionally

been used as recipes for problem solv-

ing, they provide deeper insight when

used as guides to thinking. A physics

FI G U R E 2 student can learn to “read” equations

as a music student reads notes on a mu-

Just as the ratio C/D is the same for all circles, the ratio F/m is the same sical score.

for all objects in free fall. Rather than writing Newton’s sec-

ond law as F = ma (force equals mass

times acceleration), I strongly suggest

a = F/m, which is more like New-

ton expressed it. Then a student can

see why a boulder and feather falling

without air resistance (free fall) have

equal accelerations (Figure 2).

Any topic is better learned when

related to what students already know.

Students know the relationship be-

tween a circle’s diameter and circum-

ference: C = πD. In ratio form, they see

that whatever the size of a circle, the

ratio C/D remains constant: π. Similar-

ly, the ratio of gravitational force F to

mass m for freely falling objects yields Exaggerating symbol sizes cannon recoil. Although the two forc-

the constant g, the acceleration due to The relationship between terms in an es are equal in strength, the resulting

gravity. equation can be illustrated by chang- accelerations are enormously differ-

ing the sizes of the symbols. For exam- ent. Tweaking the symbols in New-

Concepts before computation ple, when a cannon is fired, the force ton’s second law illustrates and pro-

When a teacher spends mere seconds acting on the cannonball has the same vides the explanation (Figure 3). Note

on the concepts in an equation and magnitude as the force that makes the the relative sizes of the m’s and a’s.

many minutes on number crunching,

students get the impression that phys-

ics is all about computation. Instead, F IG U R E 3

focus on the concepts in equations

and how they connect, with much less The differences in acceleration are due to the different masses.

number crunching. Concepts first,

computation second. Time normally

spent on problem solving can be bet-

ter allocated to an overview of physics.

Then all students can enjoy what many

of us already know: that physics can be

a student’s most delightful course.

before measuring its tail

A physics course can concentrate on

a few topics in detail or many topics

more generally. I prefer the latter—to

study mechanics, properties of mat-

ter, heat, waves, light, radioactivity,

nuclear fission and fusion, with some F IG U R E 4

time devoted to Einstein’s relativity. A As fuel is burned to provide thrust, mass decreases and acceleration

broad overview of physics is valuable increases.

to students who continue with physics

and also to those who don’t.

instruction: kinematics

To cover a wide range of physics I rec-

ommend just skimming through kine-

matics—the study of motion without

regard to forces. Kinematics can swal-

low more class time than any other

topic, because it’s a dandy introduction

to numerical problem solving. A main

reason for limiting time spent on ki-

nematics is that it addresses no laws of

physics. None.

March 2017 15

Focus on Physics

Equations identify and crutch. Equations identify the concepts crease? The equation for Newton’s

connect concepts involved. For example: We know that second law guides our answer by re-

Some teachers complain when stu- a rocket fired in deep space gains speed minding us that acceleration depends

dents presented with a problem grasp as long as the thrusting force is main- not only on applied force but also on

for an equation. I don’t. I encourage tained. Question: For a constant thrust, mass. Aha! As fuel is burned, the mass

it! Hooray for equations serving as a will the rocket’s acceleration also in- m of the rocket decreases. Hence the

acceleration as well as the speed of the

rocket increase (Figure 4, p. 15). The

FI G U R E 5

equation nicely guides this discussion.

Although the velocity of Hudson varies as he is tossed upward, his

acceleration is a constant g. Distinguishing between closely

related concepts

Equations help to differentiate closely

related concepts such as velocity and

acceleration, which are commonly

confused. Well-chosen examples help

point out the differences between the

two. My favorite is asking for the accel-

eration of a vertically tossed object at

the top of its path, such as little Hudson

tossed upward by his dad (Figure 5).

Students will likely say the accelera-

tion of Hudson at the top of his path

is zero. This answer is wrong because

velocity (which is zero there) is con-

fused with acceleration. The equation

FI G U R E 6 a = F/m guides thinking to the correct

answer, g. Barring air drag, the accel-

The impulse-momentum equation tells us that the magnitude of force in

eration of any projectile is everywhere

a collision greatly depends on the time during which the change occurs.

g, whether moving upward, momen-

tarily at rest at the top of its path, or

moving downward.

Newton’s second law involves

thinking of three concepts at once: ac-

celeration, force, and mass. A lot of us,

me included, have difficulty thinking

of two ideas at once. But three ideas?

Even Galileo didn’t get around to that!

So we have to be patient with students

who don’t comprehend these connec-

tions and distinctions right away.

Exaggerated symbols help explain

differing magnitudes of concepts in

various circumstances. For instance, are threatened by math and by others dents who, like them, enjoy problem

symbol sizes nicely illustrate how the who view it as a “killer course” that solving. These courses should remain,

amount of force varies during the will lower their GPAs. Some teach- for they provide the vital foundation

changes in momentum of colliding ers are quite content with their small for future engineers and scientists.

objects (Figure 6) and with changes in classes of mathematically talented stu- But we shouldn’t shut out the

energy (Figure 7).

Beyond mechanics F IG U R E 7

Given a choice, would students want Energy conservation tells us that a small force can ideally lift a huge

to spend time on kinematics prob- weight.

lems or learn why radiation from

their smart phones can’t damage hu-

man cells? Radiation energy comes

in packets, or photons. The photon

energy is related to the radiation fre-

quency by E = hf, where h is Planck’s

constant. It’s easy to see that radiation

at low frequencies means low energy

of each photon (Figure 8). A bit of

number checking will show photon

energies much too low to disrupt cells

in the human body.

one thing

The value of equations isn’t limited

to the physics classroom. Equations in F IG U R E 8

general remind us that we can never

change only one thing: Change the The low radiation frequency of smart phones means correspondingly low

value of a term on one side of an equa- energy for each photon of radiation.

tion, and you correspondingly change

the other side. Whenever you change

one thing, something else is also

changed. Not being able to change

only one thing extends way beyond

physics, especially to ecology and to

situations that are social and even per-

sonal.

mainstream

There are many reasons why phys-

ics courses aren’t as common as Eng-

lish and history in secondary schools.

Physics is avoided by students who

March 2017 17

Focus on Physics

many nonmathematical students who approach isn’t just good for individu- On the web

A video with more on equations as the

see science as “cool” and would love als—it’s good for the country. Basic rules of nature and as guides to thinking,

to learn physics “without numbers.” science knowledge enables people to “Hewitt-Drew-it! Physics for Teachers 1,”

They would welcome a noncompu- understand critical issues such as cli- is at http://bit.ly/TST-physics.

tational course that emphasizes con- mate change.

cepts over mathematical skills. To When a learner’s first course in Paul G. Hewitt (pghewitt@aol.com) is the

bring more of the general public into physics is a delightful experience, the author of the popular textbook Con-

science, a noncomputational survey rigor of a second course will be wel- ceptual Physics, 12th edition, and coau-

thor with his daughter Leslie Hewitt and

physics course can precede the higher comed. And in your teaching of phys-

nephew John Suchocki of Conceptual

level physics courses and have a place ics, it’s fun and rewarding to get to Physical Science, 6th edition, both pub-

in the educational mainstream. This photons and rainbows. lished by Pearson Education.

stability, it helps to be

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