Physics in Your Life

Course No. 1260
Professor Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
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Course No. 1260
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Course Overview

Why does a curve ball curve? Why does ice float? What's the perfect way to cook egg custard? How do CDs and DVDs work? Why don't your legs break when you jump off a chair? What keeps a moving bicycle from falling over? These questions involve physical principles that relate not only to interesting aspects of our daily lives, but also explain such phenomena as the cause of hurricanes, the formation of neutron stars, the ability of water to dissolve different substances, and other fundamental features of reality.

Therefore, this course that explores the physics of everyday events is not just informative and fun, it has the potential to lead to a deeper understanding of the universe.

But it takes a superb teacher to make these connections—to start with a nuts-and-bolts description of how a refrigerator works and end up with a profound insight into the ultimate fate of the cosmos.

Professor Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College is the ideal teacher to take you on this journey. The New York Times praised him as "absolutely stellar" in his Teaching Company course on modern physics, Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists. Now he brings the same enthusiasm to "everyday" physics, dealing with our basic understanding of the physical world as it applies to commonplace technologies and natural phenomena.

A Nonmathematical Course Where "Seeing Is Believing"

Physics in Your Life is more than a course in physics and more than a laundry list of "how things work." In fact, it combines the two, offering a back-and-forth interplay between everyday applications of physics and the concepts needed to understand them.

"My approach is entirely qualitative," says Professor Wolfson. "I believe you can understand physics, and understand it deeply, without using mathematics."

How does he do it? In the spirit of "seeing is believing," he uses an impressive array of experiments, gadgets, props, computer animations, short videos, diagrams, and pictures. Like Mr. Wizard of the classic TV science series, Professor Wolfson is a born showman. Among his hands-on demonstrations:

  • A blown-up balloon is bathed in super-cold liquid nitrogen to show the contracting effect that heat loss has on the air inside the balloon.
  • Professor Wolfson cranks a muscle-powered generator to demonstrate the surprising effort required to produce a mere 100 watts. Imagine if you had to generate all your electricity this way!
  • A giant magnetic coil on a rotating shaft reveals the ingenious simplicity of the electric motor, used in everything from electric toothbrushes to locomotives.
  • A curious phenomenon unfolds as a magnet is dropped through a hollow aluminum tube. Aluminum is non-magnetic, which means the magnet won't stick to it. But can you guess what happens?

You will also see experiments with lasers, lenses, bowling balls, gyroscopes, musical instruments, and more. And Professor Wolfson walks you step-by-step through the processes by which computers compute—from the level of electrons moving through semiconductors to binary bits, bytes, CPUs, RAM, all the way up to text and pictures appearing on your screen.

What You Will Learn

This course is organized into six modules, treating five specific realms of physics and their related applications, plus a sixth area devoted to a potpourri of topics:

"Sight and Sound" begins with the technology behind CDs and DVDs, using these devices as a springboard to study light, sound, and other phenomena. You will explore how these principles relate to such topics as rainbows, optical fibers for communications, musical instruments, and laser vision correction.

"Going Places" looks at motion and its connection to modes of transportation such as walking, automobiles, airplanes, and interplanetary probes. This module is based on Newton's laws, generalized to include such topics as fluid motion, conservation of energy, and the dynamics of space flight.

"Plug In, Turn On" looks at the intimate connection between electricity and magnetism that is at the heart of technologies from electric motors and generators to videotapes and credit cards. Electricity and magnetism join to make possible electromagnetic waves, which enable the growing host of wireless technologies.

"From Atom to Computer" starts with the element silicon and builds through progressively larger scales-transistors, logic circuits, microprocessors, motherboards, and peripherals-to create a conceptual picture of how a computer works.

"Fire and Ice" introduces heat with topics ranging from physics in the kitchen to Earth's climate and how humans are altering it. Also covered are thermal responses of materials, including the unusual behavior of water in both liquid and solid form. The module ends with the second law of thermodynamics and its implications for human energy use.

"Potpourri" offers a miscellany of topics in physics: the workings of the satellite Global Positioning System; rotational motion in phenomena from dance to pulsars; lasers and their many uses; nuclear physics and its multifaceted role in our lives; the mechanics of the human body and how physics enables us to explore the body through medical imaging; and the evolution of the universe from the big bang to you.

From Everyday Examples to Universal Principles

The beauty of this course is that it takes you from the specific to the general. "This is not a standard introductory physics course," says Professor Wolfson. "It's not a course that's going to lay out a lot of physical principles, and then give you a few minor examples of them. Rather, it's going to focus more directly on the application of those principles in your everyday life."

For example, at the beginning of the first module you delve into a mystery that may have long puzzled you: How are music and images encoded in the plastic discs that are CDs and DVDs? As you discover how microscopic pits on a rotating disc are interpreted as ones or zeroes by a laser optical system, Professor Wolfson relates these processes to principles you will encounter later in the course:

  • Discs rotate, as do objects from car wheels to planets.
  • Discs store information, a role they have in common with magnetic tapes, credit card strips, semiconductor electronics, phonograph records, and DNA molecules.
  • Discs are read with an optical system that involves lasers and the reflection, refraction, and interference of light.
  • The stream of information coming off a disc is manipulated by physics-based electronic circuitry. It is then converted into light and sound using a variety of physics principles.

"CDs and DVDs are metaphors for almost all of physics," says Professor Wolfson. Many disciplines—from quantum physics, to optics, mechanics, and electronics—are involved in making CDs and DVDs work.

Bringing Physics Down to Earth

Physics can get complicated, and whenever the discussion threatens to become too abstract, Professor Wolfson pulls you back to Earth with a memorable explanation or analogy:

  • On the information content of a CD: "Brahms's Symphony No. 3 as recorded on a disc is nothing but a single number. It's a binary number with many, many digits. When you go out and buy Microsoft Office to put on your computer, it's nothing but an enormous binary number. When you write your Ph.D. thesis, there's nothing but a single, large number."
  • On the nature of waves: "A wave of people in a stadium is a true example of a wave. The disturbance consists of the people removing themselves from their seated positions, standing up, and sitting down again. That disturbance moves around the stadium, and it carries with it the energy that it takes to lift a person out of his or her seat—but it does not move the people around the stadium. A wave, then, is a traveling disturbance that carries energy, but it doesn't carry matter."
  • On the energy source of hurricanes: "A hurricane works by the latent heat of water evaporated from the ocean, released in the air to drive the hurricane. Similarly, in a double boiler, latent heat from the boiling water is released in contact with the bottom of the upper pan, and that's what causes the food to cook."
  • On computer crashes: "In a computer hard disc, there is a head that literally flies, held aloft by aerodynamic forces. The distance is on the order of one millionth of one meter. A disc crash is like an airplane crash. The flying disc hits a particle of dust, loses those aerodynamic forces, and crashes into the disc, damaging the surface—and there goes your Ph.D. thesis if you haven't got it backed up!"

Clearing Things Up

Professor Wolfson also clears up some common misconceptions:

  • Sonic booms: People tend to think that sonic booms occur at the moment an airplane breaks through the sound barrier, and then it's over. That's not true at all. As long as an airplane is moving faster than the speed of sound, it's dragging a big shock wave behind it, creating a boom as it passes.
  • What stops a car? Brakes do not stop the car. They simply stop the wheels from turning. What stops the car is the frictional force between the wheels and the road, which is most efficient when the wheels are still rolling.
  • Centrifugal force: There is no such force. The term centrifugal force is used to describe apparent but actually nonexistent forces one experiences in rotating frames of reference-a sort of fudge to make Newton's laws seem to apply in a situation in which they don't apply.
  • "Zero g": It's a common misconception that there's no gravity in space. Apparent weightlessness arises any time the only force acting on an object is gravity. That condition is called "free fall."

Physics in Your Life is the perfect complement to Professor Wolfson's other Teaching Company course on physics, Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists. And while the two courses treat very different realms, they are united by the energy and enthusiasm of an educator whom Teaching Company customers call "brilliant," "exciting," and "one of the most dynamic and engaging professors I've ever had the pleasure of listening to."

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Realms of Physics
    Professor Richard Wolfson introduces the field of physics and describes the fundamental role it plays in our lives. He discusses the difference between classical and modern physics and outlines the course scope. x
  • 2
    The Amazing Disc
    This lecture uses compact discs and DVDs as metaphors for the whole realm of physics, especially for the phenomena of light and sound. x
  • 3
    The Wonderful Wave
    Most of our contact with and knowledge about the world comes from waves. This lecture explores basic wave behaviors and properties, and everyday phenomena. x
  • 4
    Seeing the Light
    We learn how images are formed in the eye and how the principles of optics are used in everything from telescopes to microscopes, CD players to cameras. x
  • 5
    Is Seeing Believing?
    Nature and technology have a variety of tricks for altering the path of light, some of which form images while others result in such beautiful optical effects as rainbows. The optical fibers that carry our email and web pages exploit such "tricks." x
  • 6
    Music to Your Ears
    Sound is a propagating disturbance that carries energy but not matter. Sound waves are important not only for hearing but for probing structures as diverse as the Sun and developing fetuses. x
  • 7
    May the Forces Be With You
    The single most important concept in physics is that forces cause not motion but change in motion. This lecture introduces Newton's famous three laws of motion. x
  • 8
    Aristotle’s Revenge
    Friction is a hidden force that obscures the simplicity of Newton's laws. Without friction, we couldn't walk, run, or dance; start, stop, or steer a car; or even balance. x
  • 9
    Going in Circles
    Motion in curved paths, especially circles, is important in everything from atoms to cars to satellites to galaxies, yet few ideas in physics are so confusing. x
  • 10
    Taking Flight
    We look at how balloons and airplanes achieve flight. Newton's laws provide a simple but full explanation for flight. A more sophisticated explanation involves the physics of fluid motion. x
  • 11
    Into Space
    This lecture investigates the physics of space flight, from orbits to the misnamed state called "zero gravity." We also look at many applications of space technology. x
  • 12
    A Conservative Streak
    Under the right conditions, energy and momentum are conserved—that is, their values do not change. This explains many of the interactions that occur. x
  • 13
    The Electrical Heart of Matter
    This lecture looks at aspects of electricity, including electric charge and electric fields, and the role electricity plays in holding matter together. x
  • 14
    Harnessing the Electrical Genie
    Current is the net flow of electric charge. Voltage is the energy imparted per unit charge. Together, they give us electric power. Electric charge flows more easily in some materials than others, and these differences are exploited in technology. x
  • 15
    A Magnetic Personality
    Magnetism arises from moving electric charges. We use this relationship in a huge number of ways, from motors and loudspeakers to clocks and circuit breakers. x
  • 16
    Making Electricity
    To make electric current and keep it flowing, we need devices that can separate positive and negative charge and keep them separate. Here we look at devices from everyday batteries to solar cells. x
  • 17
    Credit Card to Power Plant
    Electromagnetic induction is the basis for electric generators and a host of applications—from devices that read credit cards, to tape recorders, bicycle speedometers, and electric toothbrush chargers. x
  • 18
    Making Waves
    Everything we know about electromagnetism is described by Maxwell's equations. Maxwell's equations lead us directly to the nature of light, radio, x-rays, and other electromagnetic waves. x
  • 19
    The Miracle Element
    Professor Wolfson uses a series of six lectures to take us from the atomic level all the way up to a complete computer. This first lecture examines the intriguing properties of the element silicon, essential to modern electronics. x
  • 20
    The Twentieth Century’s Greatest Invention?
    One of the most important inventions of the 20th century is the transistor, a tiny semiconductor device at the heart of every electronic gadget, from the simplest radio to the most complex supercomputer. x
  • 21
    Building the Electronics Revolution
    The revolution that enabled modern electronics came in the early 1960s, when engineers learned to combine multiple transistors and other electronic devices on a single piece, or "chip," of silicon. x
  • 22
    Circuits—So Logical!
    The fundamental building blocks of computers are digital circuits that store and process information in the form of binary numbers. x
  • 23
    How’s Your Memory?
    We investigate how individual electronic memory cells work and how they're assembled into voluminous computer memories. x
  • 24
    Atom to Computer
    We learn what goes into a complete computer, comprising a microprocessor, motherboard, and different peripheral devices. x
  • 25
    Keeping Warm
    This lecture introduces a number of ideas related to heat, including the flow of heat, temperature and how it is measured, and energy balance. x
  • 26
    Life in the Greenhouse
    Professor Wolfson discusses the process of energy balance as it applies to Earth's climate and how human activity may be altering that climate. x
  • 27
    The Tip of the Iceberg
    We investigate changes in state between liquids, solid, and gases, and how these affect different substances, including water, which has some unusual properties. x
  • 28
    Physics in the Kitchen
    The kitchen is full of examples of physics, especially relating to heat transfer. We explore refrigeration and the many styles of cooking, including broiling, boiling, steaming, and microwaving. x
  • 29
    Like a Work of Shakespeare
    The writer C. P. Snow compared the second law of thermodynamics to the works of Shakespeare as being something every educated person should know. x
  • 30
    Energy in Your Life
    How much energy does it take to supply our energy needs? Professor Wolfson inventories our energy use and gives a visceral demonstration of what that implies. x
  • 31
    Your Place on Earth
    Featuring a potpourri of physics applications, Professor Wolfson begins a five lecture series which opens with a look at the Global Positioning System (GPS), a constellation of satellites that can pinpoint a location on Earth within inches. x
  • 32
    Dance and Spin
    The physics of rotational motion leads to some surprising phenomena, with roles in such everyday occurrences as bicycle riding, ice skating, and weather. x
  • 33
    The Light Fantastic
    The laser is among the most important inventions of the 20th century. We explore different types of lasers and their uses. x
  • 34
    Nuclear Matters
    Nuclear physics is inextricably part of our lives—in energy, defense policy, medicine, airline security, and even in smoke detectors and radiocarbon dating. x
  • 35
    Physics in Your Body
    Beginning with the mechanics of how the human body works, we then investigate medical techniques that use physics, particularly medical imaging tools such PET, CAT, and MRI. x
  • 36
    Your Place in the Universe
    Professor Wolfson closes with a philosophical look at where we humans fit into the universe, particularly how the material from which we are made comes, ultimately, from stars and from processes that commenced during the Big Bang. x

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  • 224-page printed course guidebook
  • Suggested readings
  • Questions to consider
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Your professor

Richard Wolfson

About Your Professor

Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
Dr. Richard Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, where he also teaches Climate Change in Middlebury's Environmental Studies Program. He completed his undergraduate work at MIT and Swarthmore College, graduating from Swarthmore with a double major in Physics and Philosophy. He holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Physics from...
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Physics in Your Life is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 65.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent method of presentation Less emphasis on math and more on the concepts ....
Date published: 2020-07-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear and Comprehensive Lectures Prof. Wolfson tackles tough subjects and make physics easier to understand. He goes at a rapid pace but uses demonstrations that really help. The lectures have been thought out well and add a little fun to the understanding. This is not an audio course as the demonstrations are important to understand the concepts he is teaching.
Date published: 2020-06-17
Rated 3 out of 5 by from Just 'so-so' The professor's presentation is awful in my view : way too rushed - like his main focus is to get thru the material in a certain time frame rather than make it comprehensible. The pdf guidebook is a saving grace, and I'd suggest reading the chapters prior to watching the presentations.
Date published: 2020-06-14
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Physics in Your Life A little dated, but the principles of basic physics don't really change. One of the 'new' technologies mentioned in the first two lectures was DVD technology. The teacher is very fast-talking so it's a little hard to keep up, but he says that he will mention some of the concepts in more detail in the future modules in the course.
Date published: 2020-06-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome presentation .... I wish I would have had this presented to me at high school before taking all the advanced classes in physics, thermo, etc. in college... great job of explaining the basic nuts and bolts!!! Professor Wolfson does an outstanding job of making the material understandable and alive with his presentation and prop usage. GREAT job!!!!
Date published: 2020-05-09
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Great real world examples The course was helpful towards a better understanding of how Physics has transformed our lives. Most of the lectures were quite understandable for a person with no background in Physics.
Date published: 2019-08-27
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The course is a good review of physics and explains how the world around us works.
Date published: 2019-01-21
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Physics made simple Richard Wolfson explains how the laws of physics impact everything you do, use, and see in your everyday life, even your body. He gives many examples and demonstrations of the physic principle he is describing, making it easy to understand, even for those who don't have knowledge of physics. Great course.
Date published: 2018-12-30
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