2014-11-14

oscillations and the metric

In class, I was solving the normal-mode problem for a solid object near equilibrium, using generalized coordinates, in the usual manner. This starts by orthogonalizing the coordinates to make (what I call) the "mass tensor" (the tensor that comes in to the quadratic kinetic-energy term) proportional to (or identical to) the identity. This operation was annoying me: Why do we have to get explicit about the coordinates? The whole point is that the coordinates are general and we don't have to get specific about their form!

In my anger, I solved the problem without this orthogonalization. It turns out that this solution is easier! Of course it is: I can do everything with pure matrix operations.

I had two other in-class epiphanies about the problem. The first is that the solution you get when you don't do the orthogonalization is more analogous to the simple one-dimensional problem in every way. The second is that, in a D-dimensional problem with D generalized coordinates, the tensor that goes in to the kinetic energy term is some kind of spatial metric for a D-dimensional dynamical problem. (Or proportional to it, anyway.) That is simultaneously obvious and deep.

2014-10-22

many-body systems; composite objects

Every time I teach mechanics (and this is something like the 21st year I have taught it at the undergraduate level) I learn something new. This week we are talking about many-body systems; I had two epiphanies (both trivial, but still): The first is that the description of the object in terms of a center-of-mass vector and then many difference vectors away from the center of mass (one per "atom") is purely a coordinate transform. Indeed, it is just generalized coordinate system that is related to the Newtonian coordinates by a holonomic transformation. Awesome! So when the Lagrangian separates into external and internal terms, this is just a result of the appropriateness of that transformation.

The second is that the definition of the many-body system is completely arbitrary. It should be chosen not on the grounds of being bound or solid or connected but rather on the grounds of whether choosing it that way simplifies the problem solution. Both of these realizations are simple and obvious, but it took a lot of teaching for me to get them fully. I am reminded as I realize these things that the physics concepts we expect first-year undergraduates to manipulate and be comfortable with are in fact pretty damned hard.

2014-09-14

air resistance, again

I should stop complaining about air resistance, but I can't help myself! I am teaching this semester from Kibble & Berkshire, and in Chapter 3 there are problems about air resistance that use speeds of around 100 meters per second and an atmospheric drag law that is proportional to velocity to the first power. I don't think there is any physical system that could have these properties: If you are small enough to have viscosity matter, you can never go 100 meters per second. Well, I guess molecules can go that fast, but (a) that isn't what the authors have in mind, and (b) molecules aren't really well described by continuum mechanics!

2013-01-22

the answer "that question is ridiculous" must be accepted

My friends who work in education of the young (the 'fuzz included) like to quote studies that show students answering without comment or concern questions like "Farmer Jake has 13 sheep and walks them 21 miles. How old is Farmer Jake?" There are many mixed-up reasons for this problem; some relate to rote learning; some relate to the artificial dichotomy set up between reading and math; some relate to the decontextualized ways we teach math; some relate to the testing environment that saturates schools; and so on. I feel all these things!

Imagine we want to see students using their common sense and their judgement with every question they consider and answer. I think that would be good. How do we foster this kind of thinking and exercise of common sense? I think we have to let the students call "bullshit".

Here's an example: "Johnny has twelve toy cars. He gives eight to Frances. How many does he have left?" Obviously we should accept the answer "four". But we should also accept the answer "No way! Who would give more than half of his toy cars to someone else?" If we don't accept that answer, we are saying to the students "calculate without thinking". That might be okay for quantum physicists (though I disagree), but it isn't okay for the rest of us.

2012-12-02

bad physics of Total Recall

On the airplane home from Spitzer Science Center and LIGO I made the mistake of watching the new Total Recall (2012 remake). (I also made the good decision to watch Men in Black 3 but that is not relevant to this post.) Central to the story is a tunnel through the Earth through which a train called The Fall goes from Britain to Australia in 17 minutes. Important to the plot is a gravity reversal on the journey in the core of the Earth, where the riders on The Fall are briefly weightless, and their chairs rotate from one orientation to the opposite so they are reoriented for arrival.

As everyone in first-year physics (well, for Physics Majors anyway) ought to calculate, the no-air-resistance, free-fall time for this journey (indeed on any straight chord through the Earth) is about 45 minutes (yes, identical to the time to go half-way around the Earth ballistically). That means that if riders were weightless for the entire journey the crossing would take 45 minutes.

The fact that The Fall does the journey faster than that would mean not one gravity reversal but three gravity reversals, because you would have to start the journey accelerating faster than gravity, and end the same. So the whole thing, which was obviously so highly thought out and worked out for the story, was just straight-up wrong.

I think if we ever do dig a chord-like tunnel through the Earth (the Chunnel is getting close to the relevant scale), we probably should run the trips at 45 minutes, because I think for pretty deep reasons this will be very close to minimum-effort travel times. In thinking about this, I have also thought about the relevant engineering gains and safety losses incurred if the Chunnel were operated evacuated of air or at low pressure. There were also idiotic things in the movie related to the implied air pressure, temperature, and air flow in the tunnel outside The Fall but these are more subtle. I digress.

Actually, the excellent MIB3 was even more physically unrealistic than Total Recall (bad time travel and so on), but the tone of the movie made it absolutely clear that you were expected to cut them physics slack.

2012-11-28

LHC energy and momentum

Problem: The LHC delivers 8 TeV per particle in bunches of 1011 particles. What is the kinetic energy and momentum of a bunch, in SI units and then as compared to (a) a small-caliber bullet and (b) a Major-League baseball pitch?

I get that the bunch has far more kinetic energy than either a bullet or a baseball pitch, but far less momentum. A LHC particle bunch would burn you badly, but it wouldn't knock you down! Of course there are some 109 bunches per second, so you don't want to be hanging out in the beam line when it's running.

2012-04-26

scientific teaching?

I am on a committee at NYU (related to NYU's Morse Academic Program) in which we were given copies of this article on scientific teaching (PDF) by Handelsman et al. The article has many sentences that include the word should, which is a little annoying, but the worst thing about it is that it advocates, repeatedly, basing our teaching methods on scientifically demonstrable successes, measured with metrics. I don't object to being scientifically accountable, and I, for one, use the research-supported techniques of active learning, participatory classroom activities, and peer instruction. However, the article goes on about metrics without giving a single clear example. Why? Because they don't want to undermine their point by bringing up controversial testing strategies. However, we can't be metric-driven if we don't have metrics! So let's all just stop talking about the philosophy of being scientific and find some metrics that we can agree on. I, for one, haven't found anything I like. After all, the goal of physics education is not to create students who perform better on isolated, decontextualized exams like the Force Concept Inventory!