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Physics for the 21st century

November 19, 2010
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Back when I first started teaching, I remember discovering the set of The Mechanical Universe Laserdiscs we had in the classroom, and falling in love with these videos, the whirling equations, period costumes (to say nothing of the 1980s fashions), and funny animations that really were educational and entertaining at the same time. I also remember showing them to my kids a few times, and discovering their love of these videos didn’t really match mine.

But I always wanted to go back and watch them from start to finish, and now you can do this online via streaming. But I never got around to it—maybe one day.

Now, I’ve got a new, shinier treat to look at from the same folks at Annenberg/Harvard Smithsonian, who set out to create 21st century update to The Mechanical Universe.

Physics of the 21st Century is a brand new free online course designed to teach the latest discoveries in modern physics to Adult learners. The course consists of a web based text, 30 minute videos, virtual labs, and so much more. It really is incredible.

My colleagues and I have decided to embark upon a lunchtime project to watch and discuss all 11 of the videos and work our way through this course as a form of professional devleopment. We watched the first video on Wednesday, which discussed fundamental particles by profiling two Fermilab scientists, one working on Neutrino Oscillation and the other working on the Higgs Boson. I thought the videos were very well done—by telling the story of physics through scientists, they really capture the process of science, and the joy of exploration and discovery that motivates these scientists. They also push to a slightly deeper level than I’ve seen in other work like the The Elegant Universe (which is also fantastic, but aimed at more of a lay audience). In physics for the 21st century, they actually show you some of the data they collect from all the various detectors they use to discover neutrinos and other subatomic particles, and then explain how they interpret these data for evidence of particles you can’t see. Of course, I still find myself with more questions than answers about neutrino oscillation, but this is a great start.

Anyway, the videos are so good that I’ve decided to offer my kids a chance to watch and discuss them as well. I sent them this email recently:

Here’s another idea I’ve had to make backwork fun. An incredible course on the physics of the 21st century was just released on the internet. This course contains videos, readings and lots of supplementary material explaining the questions and experiments scientists are wrestling with today. Along the way, you’ll learn answers to questions like what the fundamental particles are that make up our universe, the evidence we have for the big bang, how we see that the universe is expanding, how particles interact on a fundamental level and much more.

My idea would be to show one 15 minute video during backwork each week, and answer a few questions afterward for 5 minutes or so. If you think this might interest you, email me so we can find a time.

Best wishes,
Mr. B

I’ve had a few kids respond very enthusiastically, and so we’ll see how this goes. Of course, it really begs the question of why I’m not actually exposing my kids to these ideas in class—since as cool as I think think they are, blocks on inclined planes really don’t captivate in the same way as a 570 megapixel digital camera searching for evidence of dark energy. This is a question I must work harder on—why must physics classes end in 1850?

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 22, 2010 4:37 am

    I ask myself this same question every year and I keep coming up with that typical teacher response, “Well, to understand neutrinos (relativity, wave functions, etc.), they have to understand basic physics.” But you know what, when I think back to what got me interested in physics, what truly moved me toward spending the last 13 years of my life learning and teaching it, was Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. It was filled with black holes, the arrow of time, fermions, bosons and the anthropic principle. That is what got me excited and kept me going through inclined planes in intro mechanics. Only now that I can look back on those intro courses do I have an appreciation for the beauty in the ideas covered.

    I’m with you. We need to expose kids to the exciting and interesting aspects of physics.

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