Blog Archives

A Collection of Natural Science Demonstrations from Harvard

Science often feels like a magic show and that aspect makes it particularly appealing to science education. Great communicators of science like Walter Lewin can enchant any audience by turning ordinary physical phenomena into captivating demonstrations that violate intuition and tickle imaginations. In this tradition, Harvard University has created a collection of science demonstrations and simulations covering chemistry, physics, and astronomy. Some of these demonstrations are hard to replicate at home or even in a regular school classroom because of the complex equipment requirements, which is why putting them online is so beneficial. Below is an example of one of the demonstrations that features Chladni plates. More videos are available on the Harvard Natural Sciences Demonstrations Youtube channel.

The Seasons Simply Explained

The fact that certain months are hot and others are cold is so deeply ingrained in our brains that we take it for granted. Fortunately, it doesn’t take advanced science to explain the basics behind this phenomenon. In the “Reasons for Seasons” animation below, Rebecca Kaplan talks about the science of seasons as if she is reading a fairy tale, not giving a serious lecture. This makes for wonderful bedtime learning even if you’re already a serious adult.

Plus Magazine: A Collaboration Between Mathematicians and Educators

plus magazine

Unfortunately, too many of the English language math textbooks that students see on a daily basis are written exclusively by professional educators without any serious input from mathematicians. As a result, these books are too much about teaching procedures and not enough about inspiring future mathematicians and scientists. At the other extreme, textbooks (usually at the college level) written by mathematicians tend to be dry and extremely dense. They may present all of the necessary definitions, lemmas, and theorems, but there is not enough room left for applications.

Plus Magazine, a University of Cambridge project is an attempt to correct this situation. It is an online publication that features articles, podcasts, book reviews, and news stories that makes mathematics relevant to those who are don’t grasp its importance and it is a collaboration between full-time educators and full-time researchers and practitioners of mathematics. You can find an article on why the violin is so hard to play and learn about the research of a recent Abel Prize winner (one of the top awards for mathematical research). The site also includes a collection of interesting nonstandard math problems and quite a bit of the content is related to physics. This should be a useful resource both for teachers and high school students.

The Theoretical Minimum: An Introduction to Modern Physics for the Curious Amateur

photo of Susskind

After Walter Lewin wows you with his theater of physics and you become intrigued by the possibility of parallel universes, you may be interested in some of the details behind modern physics. Unfortunately, at that point, you will most likely run into a serious roadblock. Contemporary theoretical physics is steeped in advanced theoretical mathematics, and most textbooks are geared towards future researchers, not intellectually curious individuals with limited backgrounds in either subject.

Luckily, Leonard Susskind, a Stanford Physicist and one of the fathers of string theory, comes to the rescue with The Theoretical Minimum, his unique series of courses on modern physics. The outstanding feature of Susskind’s lectures is that they do not shy away from mathematical derivations; the concepts are introduced in a completely rigorous way, yet they are made accessible to people who have never studied much math or science beyond advanced high school courses. In effect, these lectures offer both a physics and mathematics education for the price of one (figuratively speaking — the courses are free). Susskind develops the material from first principles and introduces all of the math that the physics requires. His target audience is adult continuous learners who want more detail than can be found in popular lectures, but bright high school students will benefit from seeing what life as a physics major entails. It doesn’t look too scary at all.

Jetpacks, Rocket Science, and Basic Physics for Beginners

Rocket science is usually a term associated with something too complicated for mere mortals to comprehend. In reality, the basic principles are fairly simple and involve basic middle school or high school physics. In this video, Derek Muller illustrates Newton’s laws of physics as they apply to rockets and jetpacks and mentions a few other interesting facts along the way. This is an attention-grabbing introduction to the foundations of classical mechanics and as usual with such videos, motivates a further more detail-focused exploration of the subject.

One Hour With Richard Feynman: Imagining How Nature Works

Once in a rare while, a genius unlocks a secret of nature, moves humanity forward, and secures a prominent place in the annals of science. Sometimes, more rarely, that same person, also conveys the excitement of discovery and the most complex phenomena in the simplest most beautiful language. Richard Feynman, one of the greatest physicists of the twentieth century, is that extremely rare person. In this one hour documentary he talks about the wondrous ways of nature with the air of someone who is both the keeper of its secrets and who is at the same time as fascinated by it as a child. Feynman talks about the jiggling of atoms to explain heat, surface tension of water, and how fire work. He discusses magnetism and reveals why any “why” question can lead to an infinite rabbit hole of explanations. This video should be mandatory viewing for anyone studying science and should be a powerful reminder about the power of imagination, not just the power of theory.

For the Love of Physics: Science as a Performance Art

Inspiring future scientists takes great teachers who are often talented performers. The beauty of physics as an academic subject is that it lends itself well to awe-inspiring demonstrations and performances. Walter Lewin, an MIT physics professor and legendary lecturer, is one of those talented teachers and performers who squeezes out of physics every drop of excitement that can be conveyed to a lay audience. In this lecture, filled with some of his most famous demonstrations, he puts his life on the line to illustrate the principles of classical mechanics, explains why the sky is blue while clouds are white, and leaves the lecture hall on a rocket. The lecture does not require mathematical sophistication, which makes it accessible to middle school students, but it will inspire anyone to pursue physics.

Street-Fighting Mathematics: Inexact Reasoning Leading to Deeper Understanding

All too often school teaches us to “guess and check” when a simple exact calculation would lead to the right answer. Guessing the answer to a one variable equation may not further our mathematical knowledge, but is it possible that guessing can lead to deep insights? According to Sanjoy Mahajan, physicist and author of Street-Fighting Mathematics: The Art of Educated Guessing and Opportunistic Problem Solving [PDF], the answer is yes. He makes the case that by using certain basic problem solving strategies one can avoid rigorous and complicated calculations while the result will be the same. Moreover, these strategies and the solutions that they yield lead to a deep understanding of the subject matter. The book is full of examples from mathematics, engineering, and physics and although some parts require knowledge of calculus, it should be accessible to motivated high school students. As a bonus, it is freely available from MIT Press. Here is a TEDx talk that the author gave illustrating the street-fighting techniques in his book.

Why Does Earth Have Deserts and Related Questions Answered

Some facts are so ingrained in our consciousness that we can’t avoid taking them for granted. We accept the existence of deserts, but unfortunately we rarely wonder why they exist where they do and what causes their creation. Once again, Henry Reich brings the subject to life with a brief but beautifully simple animation that attempts to answer these questions. Because the video is fast-paced, you might need to pause it once or twice to make sure you didn’t miss anything, but it is an extremely satisfying feeling to learning something completely new after spending just 2 minutes. Of course in order to be concise, the video glosses over several important details including an explanation for why cold air doesn’t hold moisture as well as warm air (here is an explanation and two instruction activities to go with it), but this leaves room for further exploration.

A Short Animated Foray into the Physics of Parallel Universes

Before you get into the nitty-gritty of math and physics it helps to get fired up about the subject. Thanks to Henry Reich of MinutePhysics you can get a quick curiosity-arousing peek at the latest thinking on the possible existence of multiple universes. None of the presented theories can be experimentally tested currently, but these flights of fancy will spark anyone’s imagination. After all, imagination, not simply the dry application of scientific principles leads to scientific progress.