Davidson professor taking physics off the page
by Staff Writer
DAVIDSON – Students across the world don’t have to learn physics from static pictures anymore.
Science Magazine honored Davidson College Brown Professor of Physics Wolfgang Christian and his collaborators with the monthly SPORE (Science Prize for Online Resources in Education) prize in its November issue for Open Source Physics, a digital library of physics models, from two-dimensional motion to quantum approximation techniques.
Francisco Esquembre, associate professor of Mathematics at the University of Murcia, Spain and Christian created about half the simulations in the library, with the rest created by contributors. ComPADRE Digital Library Technical Director Lyle Barbato runs the site’s library programming.
Christian and his colleagues created this digital library to fill a void that flat images and verbal descriptions of physical concepts leave.
“The world is dynamic,” Christian said. “It moves. Sometimes the motion is real, such as when you throw a baseball. Sometimes the motion is more abstract; it’s some mathematical idea that’s evolving in some way. Maybe it’s evolving in time, but it could be evolving in other ways, such as statistically or probabilistically. But by actually seeing that evolution, you can understand better what’s going on in the model than just simply looking at a picture.”
But with Open Source Physics, students aren’t even just looking at models; they’re creating them. Anyone with an interest can update, change, correct or add to the open source model, similar to online encyclopedia Wikipedia.
Students can follow this cradle-to-grave teaching tool from watching two cars driving down a straight road to designing their own molecular motion model.
“Eventually, you hope that some become curious about the inner workings of the model,” Christian said.
As understanding grows, simple tools allow students to manipulate certain aspects of a situation, like speed, location or number of particles. They can change one factor and analyze the output. From there, easy java simulations allow programming novices to create their own models.
Digitally modeling concepts physicists do understand allows them to discover new information and explain formerly mysterious phenomena.
Users with basic programming knowledge can also fix glitches in existing models. A simulation of a boy playing with a yoyo in a glass-walled elevator only has the yoyo going in one direction. The yoyo falls below the floor of the elevator and leaves through the ceiling when it goes up. Any user could edit the source code to fix this incongruence. With an unlimited number of inquisitive minds collaborating on this widely accessible library, it will continue to improve and demonstrate a wider range of physical phenomenon.
Students can upload a video into the tracker video-modeling tool of an accelerating car, a flying bottle rocket, an ocean wave or any other visible motion.
“You record the position of the object and the time. And by clicking repeatedly, you get a whole time series of data that is then actually marked on the video, and then you can analyze the motion of the object,” Christian said. “It’s a beautiful and very inexpensive way to begin to do computer modeling and to begin to do analysis using computers of natural phenomenon.”
Interested? Visit www.OpenSourcePhysics.org.