Physics Calls - Setting Sail

Physics is the study of the physical world - nature : 
matter, motion, space, time, energy, force.

High school physics was the first revelation to me of a world beyond my childhood. Perhaps I was more prepared for it than many because I grew up in a machine shop. My father and his brothers started a machine shop when they got home from WWII - Harris Machine and Tool Works. I have been making and designing machines since I was a small child, plus repairing and driving cars, trucks and tractors since about age 8. 

When I was a boy there were still a few steam locomotives in action. I visited my My Great Aunt Tavie by the tracks where the trains first headed up into the North Georgia mountains - there was a loud boom-boom-boom as the slack came out of the couplers between the cars and then the engineer would open the throttle, the smoke would puff to the sky and the steam would fly - it was a living thing. It breathed and puffed !!! Listen to the excitement of the children here:

Kids also love the Stirling Engine on my desk that will run on heat or cold, like this one:.

And I also have a “dippy bird” which they watch endlessly:

As a boy engines and power fascinated me. I often repaired engines people would bring into my father’s machine shop. I wanted to know how they worked. This led me to physics.  

Unlike magic, modern physics assumes:

(1) that there is an objective reality shared by all rational observers; 

(2) that this objective reality is governed by natural laws; 

(3) that these laws can be discovered by means of systematic observation and experimentation

        for more, see:

This approach was quite a departure from past claims that knowledge came from gods or kings. The classic example of this conflict was the condemnation of Galileo by the church in the 1600s for promoting the idea that planets orbited the Sun.


When I was young I started taking things like clocks apart to see how they worked. Sometimes this frustrated adults around me when I didn't put them back together. Instead I looked for another to take apart. 

[It was only later that I understood that most of science’s recent success is like my taking clocks apart - called reductionism,  starting at the top and disassembling until we can find a part that is so simple that we can understand it. Unfortunately, the opposite process, starting from the bottom and building up from elementary parts, is now proving more difficult.]

But one summer when I was ten or so I found an encyclopedia and read it - the World Book, I think, and later the Britannica. I was enjoying chemistry and biology, but it was math and physics that finally put it all together for me. Physics is, together with math, the foundation of modern science. Because of its success, other fields of study have tried to copy its methods. The science joke is: YMMV - your mileage may vary.

The key to the successs of physics is that it was the first area where math and experiment were combined rigorously so that others could confirm your claims. This discipline paid off. For example, when Galileo timed a swinging light in the local cathedral during a particularly boring sermon, he got numbers - numbers which could be repeated and verified by others. The ability to count and measure changed physics from a qualitative judgement into a quantitive verification.

Dallas Stewart, my high school physics teacher, used a curriculum that included films of famous experiments. He used to joke that the advantage was the students got to see an experiment work - as opposed to another old science joke: If it stinks - it's chemistry.  If it crawls - it's biology.  And if it won't work - it's physics.

Later at Ga Tech, we did many classic experiments ourselves … sometimes repeatedly until they worked. I came to understand that these famous experiments were not magic. I could do them myself. 


FIRST: classical physics such as motion and mechanics: 


About 250 BC, Archimedes:

 Archimedes calculated the volume of the king's crown by immersing it in water, to compare its density with gold to see if the king had been cheated … When he figured this out, he got so excited he jumped from his bathtub and ran naked through the streets of Syracuse  yelling: “I found it.”  See: Eureka = ευρηκα

About 1200, Fibonacci

Physics is highly dependent on mathematics. One leading mathematician was Fibonacci. He rescued us from Roman Numerals  [ thank you, thank you, thank you ]  by introducing what we call Arabic numerals today with digits 1-9 and columns. Until then, even accountng was done with Roman numerals! 

He also discovered the famous FIbonacci Series adding digits: 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144,etc. and generating the famous spiral as found in the shell of the nautilus:


About 1600, Galileo:

About 1700, Isaac Newton  -perhaps the smartest person over to live:


Isaac Newton's Laws of Motion - about 1687, laid the foundation for classical mechanics - the motions of the SUn, Moon and planets. It was the first true tour de force of mathematics in physics.

Newton's Apple Tree.

After realizing that the Moon was falling just like the apple, Newton invented calculus to describe the motions of objects such as the Sun, Moon and planets.  [He got into agreat dispute with Leibniz over who invented the calculs. ] 

Shortly thereafter, following Newton, LaGrange first figured out the balance points around the Earth and Moon that we use to park our satellites and telescopes in orbit today.


 These LaGrange points can also be used to construct pathways between the planets which use the least fuel:

Interplanetary Superhighway

The Interplanetary Superhighway - artist’s impression


SECOND: modern atomic physics, quantum physics and relativity, such as: 

In the late 1800s, physicists were led by thermodynamics back to the Greek Democritus’ concept of atoms. Were they really indivisible? Did they have parts? Studying small things led to atomic and nuclear particle physics, quantum theory and relativity. 

The electron was the first elementary particle studied: Watching an oil drop float in an electric field to determine the electron charge - Millikan's Oil Drop Experiment:

By placing material exhibiting atomic decay in a magnetic field, we saw traces of the particles coming out of the disintegration in a cloud or bubble chamber. When we measure the curve of the trace, we can determine the mass and charge of the particles - products of the disintegration. Yes, atoms do have parts.


In all these studies, we combined physics experiments with a closely connected rigirous mathematical model. 


The most famous and widely known modern physicist was Albert Einstein: 

Einstein 1921

Einstein at left in 1921 when he received the Nobel prize for his paper on the Photoelectric effect, showing that light acted like a particle. Then he became known for his paper on Special Relativity, showing time compression at higher velocities, And then most famously, was his paper on General Relativity, showing how space and time are linked   and curved into what we today call spacetime.

Einstein showed the equivalence of energy and matter in his famous equation: Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared:

                             E = mc2


After learning some of this, I worked as a physicist for Lockheed, doing NMR [Nuclear Magnetic Resonance] on titanium and some other radiation work, then worked on the first supercomputer at the University of Texas at Austin, then worked on a radio telescope array control system at NRAO [the National Radio Astronomy Observatory]. I also led an R&D lab for a computer manufacturer, then manufactured my own computers.  BUT you can read about this at my technical site:  , now let’s get back on track here on this site:

Eventually all this gave me a notion that some of our world, even if only a tiny part, could be understood. What drove me? It is as Dorothy Parker said:

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity"

At least I finally quit taking clocks apart. I began to see the world like Isaac Newton said:

"I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."


BUT ... there's always a "but" isn't there? 

We can see now how tools of the past enabled giant steps:
 -  mathematics, telescopes, microscopes, and falling apples - led to Newton's classical physics.

The next step was logical: This last century, the 20th was my century
 - the century of nuclear physics, quantum mechanics and relativity, computers and walking on the Moon. 

Now with the advent of these tools, the coming century will be
 - the century of organic chemistry and the human mind - the century of life itself
 - Amazing things are waiting to be 
discovered. …

 If I were starting out today, that's where I would be - where the action is.


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