avatarDr. Barbara Christie


How I Fell in Love With Physics

From nightmare to love affair

Photo by FLY:D on Unsplash

This past summer the Barbie and Oppenheimer movies hit theaters like the atomic bomb that Robert Oppenheimer helped create. Their merging was like nuclear fusion: diverse, distinct, or separate elements being unified as a whole was given the nickname-Barbenheimer. Two movies colliding together. The cultural impact could be classified in physics as energy and momentum of bodies interacting and undergoing a change as a result of the collision.

Both films addressed physics in their own way:

For Barbie: Physicists have proven that a subatomic particle can switch into its antiparticle alter-ego and back again.

For Oppenheimer: Theoretical physicist Robert Oppenheimer discovers how to weaponize nuclear fission. Along with a team of scientists, he builds the first atomic bombs in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Physics is a main character in the film and could be listed in the credits at the end.

Physics as the dream killer.

As science majors in the late 1970’s, on the first day of chemistry class we were told to “look to your left and look to your right”. Then the professor said, “only one of you will graduate as a science major”. Chemistry had the dubious distinction of being the “gatekeeper” and physics was even worse. Physics was titled “The Dream Killer”.

Going home for summer break and seeing a D on your report card in your Fundamentals of Physics II: Electricity and Magnetism Course was heartbreaking.

Poor grades in physics have dampened hopes and dreams of medical, dental or vet school. Many pre-health majors have had to regroup after tanking in physics.

There have been several times throughout my life when I was in a worried state of mind and would have anxiety dreams where I am in a physics class with a group of college students and told I need to take the physics final exam. WTF.

How could physics improve its reputation?

I think if people knew how physics is impacting their lives all the time, it would receive more respect. Getting an X-ray, using a laser printer, making a cell phone call, and watching television all involve physics. Instead of being a college course taken by science and engineering majors, if someone just explained physical theories and principles to us at a younger age, we would develop a comfort zone with physics.

Could kinder-fifth grade teachers provide more in-depth physics content in their curriculum? Naysayers may protest but think about it. When did you first learn physics? Who was your first physics teacher? I will leave it there for now.

Physics is defined as the branch of science concerned with the nature and properties of matter and energy. The subject matter of physics includes mechanics, heat, light and other radiation, sound, electricity, magnetism, and the structure of atoms.

The physics I learned in college seemed distant. Even during my labs, I felt like I was going through the motions and not grasping the true essence of the content.

Improved content knowledge leads to love and admiration.

It was not until I took a recent job as a STEM Educator for iFLY that I finally started bonding with physics. Having an opportunity to teach physics opened my heart and mind. I suddenly saw the charm and elegance I’d never experienced before. The beast was now a beauty.

As the STEM Educator, my lessons stress the physics of being supported by wind. The physics content includes learning about forces of gravity and drag, and terminal velocity. I need to break down complex topics to a level a 6-year-old can understand and retain.

I teach the students that terminal velocity (about 110–120mph for average adult) is reached when the force of drag = force of weight (balanced forces). This means the skydiver will no longer accelerate but will continue to fall at the current velocity until acted on by another force.

Students must understand the variables of skydiving which determine terminal velocity: body weight, body position, and overall surface area you’re taking up.

My lessons are focused on drag coefficient, air density, gravitational acceleration, Newton’s First Law of Motion, and Bernoulli’s Principle. I tell my students no one leaves the room without an understanding of terminal velocity.

Physics of learning to walk.

I would say your first physics teachers were the people that helped you learn to walk. Babies observe the people around them walking including their siblings. The stages of walking are developmental, including pulling yourself up and gaining the strength to hold up your body on two legs.

A baby does not read a book to learn how to walk. It is gradually learning the physics of friction and once the balancing act is complete, they take their first steps. Walking requires understanding the push and pull of forces. The foot exerts a force on the ground. The ground then exerts an equal force which points in the opposite direction.

We are all capable of learning physics because we are already using the theories of physics all day long. The theories only need to be pointed out and explained in a practical manner. If you ask a person about their knowledge of physics, they will answer in the negative. In fact, most will be intimidated by the question. Physics is a wonderful subject that is enjoyable when delivered in a way the average person can understand.



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