Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Mechanical Universe

Throughout my entire life, it seems, I have had an insatiable curiosity about how the universe works. As long ago as I can remember (which admittedly may only reach as far back as last Tuesday on some occasions) I have always wondered how the tangled mess of forces and energy that permeate the universe conspire to hold the atoms in a baseball together or how a hot cloud of dust and hydrogen in space can form stars and planets. As such, I feel as though I am tied to the field of physics no matter what I my current pursuits are. I consider the science of physics to be the foundation of all other sciences. Physics describes the forces that hold atoms and molecules together which makes the study of chemistry and engineering possible, and biology is essentially just an extension of the field of chemistry. Everything is built upon the knowledge gained in the pursuit of physics, and I believe that there is something to be said for the rich traditions and history of the field.

In high school I used to visit Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory for Saturday morning physics lectures (and free donuts) given by the intellectual giants of the field…nerdy, I know. During one science fair I performed the Millikan oil drop experiment using a perfume atomizer and a neon sing transformer, dramatically underwhelming all onlookers. In my junior or senior year I placed first in the entire state in a physics testing competition. I believe it was a JETS competition...uber nerdy, I know. I also managed to sneak a photograph of Albert Einstein into my senior yearbook as a substitute for my senior picture in lieu of the gay pictures that my classmates took in their big hair and horrible cardigans. In college I was a physics major until my junior year when I had a falling out with the dean of the department. I maintained the highest average score on the first few tests with a whopping 24%. I “mentioned” to the dean that his teachers were horse crap, and his response was a shrug of the shoulders and (directly quoting here) “Physics is hard.” How’s that for a grotesque evasion of responsibility? I told him to cram it in his black hole and promptly moved on to another field of study. Anyway, I’m not writing this to amaze you with my mad nerd skills and my bad attitude…well, at least not today. I’m writing this article to introduce you to an old video lecture series that I recently stumbled across that I used to watch religiously.

The Mechanical Universe is a brilliantly done series of over 50 thirty-minute programs covering the fundamental principles of a freshman-level university physics course - from Aristotle to quantum theory. The series follows a California Institute of Technology physics course taught by David Goodstein and was originally aired on PBS in the late 1980’s. I used to watch it with a friend in his basement, and whenever we heard the intro to the show start to play we would drop whatever ill-fated, poorly-thought-out stunt we were about to perform and would scurry to the couch for the next half-hour…OK we’ve passed nerd status and moved into full-blown dork, I get it. The Mechanical Universe wasn’t just a camera set up in a crappy classroom following some monotone professor around. The production team included distinguished scientists, video industry professionals, and gifted educators all working in collaboration backed by funding from the Annenberg/CPB Project. Each episode includes philosophical, historical and often humorous insight into the subject at hand complete with historical reenactments, dynamic location footage, and computer animation segments to help explain the topics covered. While the video footage makes the complex subjects more accessible, the computer graphics give the viewer a unique look at abstract mathematical concepts that can be sometimes difficult to grasp creating an immersive experience that makes an introductory physics course engaging and interesting.

I have placed a list of the episodes and the topics they cover below. The complete episodes are available for viewing (in the US) here:
Give it a chance, take a look, and let me know what you think.

The Mechanical Universe Episode List:
  1. Introduction: This preview introduces revolutionary ideas and heroes from Copernicus to Newton, and links the physics of the heavens and the earth.
  2. The Law of Falling Bodies: Galileo's imaginative experiments proved that all bodies fall with the same constant acceleration.
  3. Derivatives: The function of mathematics in physical science and the derivative as a practical tool.
  4. Inertia: Galileo risks his favored status to answer the questions of the universe with his law of inertia.
  5. Vectors: Physics must explain not only why and how much, but also where and which way.
  6. Newton's Laws: Newton lays down the laws of force, mass, and acceleration.
  7. Integration: Newton and Leibniz arrive at the conclusion that differentiation and integration are inverse processes.
  8. The Apple and the Moon: The first real steps toward space travel are made as Newton discovers that gravity describes the force between any two particles in the universe.
  9. Moving in Circles: A look at the Platonic theory of uniform circular motion.
  10. Fundamental Forces: All physical phenomena of nature are explained by four forces: two nuclear forces, gravity, and electricity.
  11. Gravity, Electricity, Magnetism: Shedding light on the mathematical form of the gravitational, electric, and magnetic forces.
  12. The Millikan Experiment: A dramatic recreation of Millikan's classic oil-drop experiment to determine the charge of a single electron.
  13. Conservation of Energy: According to one of the major laws of physics, energy is neither created nor destroyed.
  14. Potential Energy: Potential energy provides a powerful model for understanding why the world has worked the same way since the beginning of time.
  15. Conservation of Momentum: What keeps the universe ticking away until the end of time?
  16. Harmonic Motion: The music and mathematics of periodic motion.
  17. Resonance: Why a swaying bridge collapses with a high wind, and why a wine glass shatters with a higher octave.
  18. Waves: With an analysis of simple harmonic motion and a stroke of genius, Newton extended mechanics to the propagation of sound.
  19. Angular Momentum: An old momentum with a new twist.
  20. Torques and Gyroscopes: From spinning tops to the precession of the equinoxes.
  21. Kepler's Three Laws: The discovery of elliptical orbits helps describe the motion of heavenly bodies with unprecedented accuracy.
  22. The Kepler Problem: The deduction of Kepler's laws from Newton's universal law of gravitation is one of the crowning achievements of Western thought.
  23. Energy and Eccentricity: The precise orbit of a heavenly body — a planet, asteroid, or comet — is fixed by the laws of conservation of energy and angular momentum.
  24. Navigating in Space: Voyages to other planets use the same laws that guide planets around the solar system.
  25. Kepler to Einstein: From Kepler's laws and the theory of tides, to Einstein's general theory of relativity, into black holes, and beyond.
  26. Harmony of the Spheres: A last lingering look back at mechanics to see new connections between old discoveries.
  27. Beyond the Mechanical Universe: The world of electricity and magnetism, and 20th-century discoveries of relativity and quantum mechanics.
  28. Static Electricity: Eighteenth-century electricians knew how to spark the interest of an audience with the principles of static electricity.
  29. The Electric Field: Faraday's vision of lines of constant force in space laid the foundation for the modern force field theory.
  30. Potential and Capacitance: Franklin proposes a successful theory of the Leyden jar and invents the parallel plate capacitor.
  31. Voltage, Energy, and Force: When is electricity dangerous or benign, spectacular or useful?
  32. The Electric Battery: Volta invents the electric battery using the internal properties of different metals.
  33. Electric Circuits: The work of Wheatstone, Ohm, and Kirchhoff leads to the design and analysis of how current flows.
  34. Magnetism: Gilbert discovered that the earth behaves like a giant magnet. Modern scientists have learned even more.
  35. The Magnetic Field: The law of Biot and Sarvart, the force between electric currents, and Ampère's law.
  36. Vector Fields and Hydrodynamics: Force fields have definite properties of their own suitable for scientific study.
  37. Electromagnetic Induction: The discovery of electromagnetic induction in 1831 creates an important technological breakthrough in the generation of electric power.
  38. Alternating Current: Electromagnetic induction makes it easy to generate alternating current while transformers make it practical to distribute it over long distances.
  39. Maxwell's Equations: Maxwell discovers that displacement current produces electromagnetic waves or light.
  40. Optics: Many properties of light are properties of waves, including reflection, refraction, and diffraction.
  41. The Michelson-Morley Experiment: In 1887, an exquisitely designed measurement of the earth's motion through the ether results in the most brilliant failure in scientific history.
  42. The Lorentz Transformation: If the speed of light is to be the same for all observers, then the length of a meter stick, or the rate of a ticking clock, depends on who measures it.
  43. Velocity and Time: Einstein is motivated to perfect the central ideas of physics, resulting in a new understanding of the meaning of space and time.
  44. Mass, Momentum, Energy: The new meaning of space and time make it necessary to formulate a new mechanics.
  45. Temperature and Gas Laws: Hot discoveries about the behavior of gases make the connection between temperature and heat.
  46. Engine of Nature: The Carnot engine, part one, beginning with simple steam engines.
  47. Entropy: The Carnot engine, part two, with profound implications for the behavior of matter and the flow of time through the universe.
  48. Low Temperatures: With the quest for low temperatures came the discovery that all elements can exist in each of the basic states of matter.
  49. The Atom: A history of the atom, from the ancient Greeks to the early 20th century, and a new challenge for the world of physics.
  50. Particles and Waves: Evidence that light can sometimes act like a particle leads to quantum mechanics, the new physics.
  51. From Atoms to Quarks: Electron waves attracted to the nucleus of an atom help account for the periodic table of the elements and ultimately lead to the search for quarks.
  52. The Quantum Mechanical Universe: A last look at where we've been and a peek into the future.

1 comment:

Xavier Terri said...

Lorentz transformations are not the only ones that preserve the local speed of light constant.
I would like to present the new "Lorentz transformation" in the links:

Xavier Terri