Essential topics in physics

I asked my students at the end of the 2011-2012 school year what they thought was the most important physics concepts taught.  Here are some of their responses

Their choice


Newton’s Laws “fundamental to all things and is everywhere you look”
Radiation and Radioactivity better informed about what is dangerous and what isn’t
Conservation of Energy “People know there are limited resources but may not realize the significance of changing one energy form into another”
Basic Kinematics used in understanding motion
Momentum, Inertia, Relative Motion “If everyone had a working knowledge of those concepts the number of idiotic drivers on the road would decrease greatly”
Basic Forces “better understand some of the aspects of their daily life”
Newton’s 3 laws “they affect everyone… give everyone a greater understanding of the world around them”
Position/velocity/and acceleration “Most visible in people’s everyday lives.  This may get them thinking scientifically about other phenomenon”
Newton’s laws “Helps people predict the motion of objects in everyday situations”
Momentum or similar “People should know how things move, especially their car
Newton’s Laws “Improve safety” “Newton’s laws can be applied to many everyday things that we do”
Thermodynamics Integral to many things we take for granted in society

Assessing Essential Concepts in Quantum Theory

In last Sunday’s NY Times magazine, David Javerbaum wrote an outstanding opinion piece titled A Quantum Theory of Mitt Romney. The article uses key concepts from quantum physics and uses them to show how the quirks of Mitt Romney (or the most commonly portrayed stereotypes of Mitt) make perfects sense through the lens of quantum physics. One of my favorite aspects of this piece is that he uses the favorite phrase of mine, Complementarity, in his description. I worry the word is in danger of being lost as modern physics seems to be leaving the Copenhagen Interpretation in the past. Yet the concept has helped define my pragmatic, harmony-seeking, outlook on life and conflict.

But anyways… A physics teacher/blogger/tweeter I follow commented that the article provides evidence of the author’s understanding of physics. So that gets me thinking about teaching and assessment. If an instructor does an outstanding job of teaching and explaining the concepts of quantum theory, then the student should be able to write a comparable essay comparing any person or thing to a quantum phenomenon.

For example, my first thought was to create a quantum theory for toddlers (or more specifically, my almost-three-year-old son). If you understand concepts like entanglement, superposition, probability, etc. and you’ve ever spent extended time around a toddler, you should be able to see how the essay practically writes itself.

In the past, after teaching Physics 1 students about wave/particle duality, part of my assessment was to require students to develop an analogy using an everyday experience or idea that exhibits a dual nature to explain the nature of light. I now see how the concept can go much further.

The article tries to use quantum mechanics concepts to explain Mitt Romney. In the physics classroom could we give kids the article and use Mitt Romney to explain the quantum mechanics concepts? Then we can ask students to discuss who or what they would explain using quantum concepts. I imagine kids explaining their relationship with their parents, or the interactions within cliques using these concepts. Presto, there’s your final assessment over the QM unit.

Comment starters:

What do you think about using this article in physics classrooms?

What analogies do you think kids would want write about?

What complex aspect of your life do you think you could explain using quantum mechanics?