Friday, September 24, 2010

Take a Quantum Leap: Technology and Beyond

The field of physics is broad, covering everything from simple machines to quantum mechanics. A good definition (thanks to Wikipedia) is:
Physics (Ancient Greek: φύσις physis "nature") is a natural science that involves the study of matter and its motion through spacetime, as well as all applicable concepts, including energy and force. More broadly, it is the general analysis of nature, conducted in order to understand how the universe behaves.
It depends heavily on mathematics and the lines between two fields are often blurred or non-existent. I was recently chatting with a group of homeschooling parents and trigonometry came up. Someone told the story about asking a secondary math teacher what the terms sine, tangent, and cosine actually meant and where they actually came from, and the teacher was not able to explain it. Where I remember trigonometry from is my high school physics classes, where we actually applied our learning in the lab. Physics is kind of like hands-on mathematics; at least, it certainly uses mathematics in a hands-on way. And math has also been dependent on physics. Calculus, for example, was created due to advances in mechanics.

Physics has transformed our lives, no doubt about it. It provides the theoretical underpinnings and practical applications that have lead to the technological advances that make our modern lives convenient.

A great series of books for kids about modern technology is Cool Stuff (DK).  Cool Stuff Exploded. Cool Stuff and How it Works. Cool Stuff 2.0. From Booklist (Cool Stuff): "We revel in working and playing with high-tech gadgetry, addicted to our cell phones, computers, digital cameras, and MP3 Players and more, but we rarely stop to think how these things actually work. Even home appliances such as refrigerators and microwave ovens use technology that many people don't understand yet take completely for granted. This colorfully illustrated picture book uses advanced imaging technology such as X rays, scanning electron micrographs, and infrared thermograms, along with traditional graphics, to reveal the workings of all this and more, from the Internet and computers to advanced textiles, space-age materials, and medical marvels. Even conveniences as basic as a match and a lightbulb are dissected with brilliant photography." -- David Siegfried

There is another title that does a brilliant job of uncovering the technology in something we take for granted on a daily basis (until they break down): our cars. Car Science by Richard Hammond is a wonderful book about how cars work. "Car Science is an intuitive and user-friendly children's science book based on a topic dear to children's hearts: cars. In four sections, the book includes: a timeline of automotive invention; a "how it works" guide to modern cars, with exploded diagrams, cutaways, and computer graphics; key physics concepts, all relating to cars and how they run; and a look into the future of cars, including eco-friendly concept cars."

David Macaulay has been around a long time... as has this book. But  it's one of the best and most interesting books about "how things work" available. From "The award-winning author-illustrator--a former architect and junior high school teacher--is perfectly poised to be the Great Explainer of the whirrings and whizzings of the world of machines, a talent that landed the 1988 version of The Way Things Work on the New York Times bestsellers list for 50 weeks. Grouping machines together by the principles that govern their actions rather than by their uses, Macaulay helps us understand in a heavily visual, humorous, unerringly precise way what gadgets such as a toilet, a carburetor, and a fire extinguisher have in common.

What most people may not know is that there is also a charming "The Way Things Work" video series available that explains all the important concepts with a lot of good humour (and mammoths). When my son insisted on repeatedly taking out the library's beat-up VHS copies, we decided to splurge and use some learning resource money to purchase the whole set on DVD. They are meant for library purchasing and are priced accordingly, so instead of buying them yourselves, you could bother your local library system until they cave in and replace the VHS with the DVD. As per School Library Journal: "The series is humorous, informative and very educational. Explanations are clear and relevant, with neccesary diagrams to explain exactly how things work...These are exceptional physics videos that merit a place in all educational collections." Each episode is only about 14 minutes in length, so although there are 26 titles in the series, you may decide that ~$400 for 6 hours of viewing time is a bit steep (so do check your  library first).

If you have a child who is interested in building, then David Macaulay is also a great start. Building Big is a PBS series (available on DVD) as well as a book. Since Macaulay is a bit of a historian in terms of architecture, he includes both ancient and modern building structures in his commentary. One of Macaulay's gifts is bringing the details alive, and there are plenty to be had in this book and in the video series. "Award-winning author-illustrator—and captivating storyteller—David Macaulay (The Way Things Work) goes to extremes with five really big adventures that explore the greatest manmade wonders of the world. The series introduces the courageous creators and builders and reveals the deadly disasters and personal triumphs behind these breathtaking structures. Spectacular film footage, dramatic recreations and David’s unique illustrations excite, explain and entertain in a big way."

To move off the page and into the lab, DK's The Way Science Works is a good place to start to work with physical principles for kids 10 and up. From Amazon: "Do you know that right now 16.5 tons of air are pressing on your body? Or that with a simple experiment you can "see" a hole in the middle of your hand? Have you ever tried turning a bucket of water upside down without the water falling out? With DK's remarkable introduction to science, young readers can learn many of the most important principles of chemistry and physics--and have a whole lot of fun while they're at it. This big, handsome volume contains more than 60 hands-on projects testing key scientific theories in magnetism, gravity, liquid density, sound vibrations, the laws of reflection, and much more. In addition, the book features information about famous scientists, new technological advances, and basic theories behind everyday objects and activities. Gorgeous photos and clear, step-by-step instructions make this a learning experience budding young scientists won't mind a bit. Don't be fooled, though. Every page is packed with accurate, up-to-date information, and readers are encouraged to take their scientific exploration beyond the limits of this well-organized book." -- Emilie Coulter

How Everything Works: Making Physics Out of the Ordinary is a book for the older explorer of physics. It is a highly accessible, information-packed volume that is "just right" for the lay scientist. "If one didn't know better, one might think the world was filled with magic—from the household appliances that make our lives easier to the devices that fill our world with sounds and images. Even a simple light bulb can seem mysterious when you're clueless about the science behind it. Now in How Everything Works, Louis Bloomfield takes you inside the amazing gizmos and gadgets that are part of the fabric of our everyday life, explaining the physics that makes them work. Examining everything from roller coasters to radio, knuckleballs to nuclear weapons, How Everything Works reveals the answers to such questions as why the sky is blue, why metal is a problem in microwave ovens, how MRIs see inside you, and why some clothes require dry cleaning. You don't need a science or engineering background to understand How Everything Works. All you need is an active curiosity about the extraordinary world all around you. Remarkably clear and always fascinating, How Everything Works is nothing short of a user's manual for our everyday world."

If your child loves physics and wants to go even further with his or her understanding, then looking at "modern" or quantum physics can also be more fun and exciting than a textbook.

Joy Hakim's third volume in The Story of Science series, Einstein Adds a New Dimension is a great place to begin one's exploration. Because it presents the lives of the scientists and anchors their discoveries in the history of their day, the subject matter virtually sparkles with life. There are many other excellent books about Einstein out there, but there are also some videos that are wonderful to watch. Nova's Einstein's Big Idea is a good place to start to get a basic overview on Einstein's theory of relativity, especially in terms of energy and mass being equivalent and transmutable ( E = mc2 ). The film I remember enjoying in my younger days is BBC's Einstein's Universe, narrated by Peter Ustinov. It's no longer distributed, but you may be able to find a copy languishing in some dark corner of a library.

Richard Feynman was the rockstar of quantum physics and received a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics in 1965. He also worked on the development of the atomic bomb. A brilliant man who at times liked to surf the edge of the unconventional, Feynman did a great deal to popularize physics through his books. His two most accessible books are the humorous and autobiographical Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? If you care to go further, you may enjoy looking at the book, Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics by Its Most Brilliant Teacher, pulled from lectures he gave when a professor at the California Institute of Technology. Feynman is essential reading for the person who would like to deepen their understanding of modern physics -- it's up to you just how in depth you want to go with it.

For a more whimsical look at Quantum Physics, try Alice in Quantumland: An Allegory of Quantum Physics. From "My eyes tend to glaze over when I encounter YAPBAQPs (Yet Another Popular Book About Quantum Physics). But this volume captured my attention, and imagination. Told in the same way as Alice in Wonderland (with many of the original passages re-tooled to their new purpose) and a hint of Flatland, Gilmore guides us through the principles of Quantum mechanics in a truly lively and fun way. I suspect it may even be a good read for teens or extremely bright children."

One of the reviewers on Amazon suggested these books as well: In Search of Schrödinger's Cat: Quantum Physics and Reality by John Gribbin and Taking the Quantum Leap: The New Physics for Nonscientists by Fred A. Wolf.

No discussion on Quantum Physics is complete without including Daniel Greene's books about String Theory. "As they are currently formulated, general relativity and quantum mechanics cannot both be right." Superstring theory brings both theoretical fields together in one united theory of everything.

The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos

The Elegant Universe was recreated in film format by Nova. It's a wonderful show, with incredible visuals, that makes many of the the theoretical concepts come to life.

As always, I'm sure there are other fabulous choices out there that I'm missing. Feel free to add!!