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Modern Physics for Non-Scientists

YEAR: 2000 | LENGTH: 24 parts (~30 minutes each)  |  SOURCE: TGC

description:

“It doesn’t take an Einstein to understand modern physics,” says Professor Richard Wolfson at the outset of this course on what may be the most important subject in the universe.

episodes:

 What are the two big ideas of modern physics? How can nonscientists gain a handle on these ideas and the radical changes they bring to our philosophical thinking about the physical world?

Negative numbers are often confusing, especially negative parenthetical expressions in algebra problems. Discover a simple visual model that makes it easy to keep track of what’s negative and what’s not, allowing you to tackle long strings of negatives and positives-with parentheses galore.

 Isaac Newton was born in 1642, the year that Galileo died. You'll learn how he built on the work of Galileo and Kepler, developing the three laws of motion and the concept of universal gravitation. You'll learn why Newton's laws suggest a universe that runs like a clock.

 The study of motion is not all there is to physics. By the 18th century, scientists were delving into the relationship between the two phenomena. Today, electromagnetism is known to be responsible for the chemical interactions of atoms and molecules and all of modern electronic technology.

 In mechanics (the branch of physics that studies motion), the principle of Galilean relativity holds—meaning that the laws of mechanics are the same for anything in uniform motion. Is the same true for the laws of electromagnetism?

 In the 1880s, Albert Michelson and Edward Morley conducted an experiment to determine the motion of Earth relative to the ether. You'll learn about their experiment, its shocking result, and the resulting theoretical crisis.

 In 1905 a young Swiss patent clerk named Albert Einstein resolved the crisis that flowed from the Michelson-Morley result. When Einstein discarded the ether concept and asserted that the principle of relativity holds for all of physics, mechanics as well as electromagnetism, he was making a simple claim with almost unimaginably profound implications.

 Why does the simple statement of relativity—that the laws of physics are the same for all observers in uniform motion—lead directly to absurd-seeming situations that violate our commonsense notions of space and time?

 As a dramatic example of what relativity implies, you will consider a thought experiment involving a pair of twins, one of whom goes on a journey to the stars and returns to Earth younger than her sister!

 If, as relativity implies, "moving clocks run slow," who's to say which clock is moving?

 Relativity implies that the time order of events can be different in different reference frames. Does this wreak havoc with cause and effect? Finally, why is it that nothing can go faster than light?

 Shortly after publishing his 1905 paper on special relativity, Einstein realized that his theory required a fundamental equivalence between mass and energy, which he expressed in the equation E=mc2. Among other things, this famous formula means that the energy contained in a single raisin could power a large city for an entire day.

 Historically, the path to general relativity followed Einstein's attempt to incorporate gravity into relativity theory, which led to his understanding of gravity not as a force, but as a local manifestation of geometry in curved spacetime.

 What causes spacetime to curve? Einstein's theory of relativity offers an answer, but for decades after he published it, there were only a few, very subtle tests of its validity. How has modern astrophysics changed all that?

 General relativity is similar to Newtonian gravitation except in the case of very dense objects such as collapsed stars. Learn why they are called black holes.

 With this lecture, you turn from relativity to explore the universe at the smallest scales. By the early 1900s, Ernest Rutherford and colleagues showed that atoms consist of a positively charged nucleus surrounded by negatively charged electrons whirling around it. But Rutherford's model could not explain all the observed phenomena.

 The "stuff" of the universe—matter and energy—is not continuously subdividable but comes in discrete "chunks." This fundamental graininess of the universe has profound implications for the behavior of matter and energy at the smallest scales.

 Einstein's resolution of the photoelectric effect problem suggests that light consists of particles (photons). But how can this be reconciled with the understanding of light as an electromagnetic wave?

 Quantization places severe limits on our ability to observe nature at the atomic scale because it implies that the act of observation disturbs that which is being observed. The result is Werner Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle. What exactly does this principle say, and what are the philosophical implications?

 In 1923, Louis de Broglie proposed that, like light photons, particles of matter might also display wave properties. The wave nature of smaller particles such as electrons is quite visible and leads to many unusual phenomena, including quantum tunneling mentioned in Lecture 1.

 Wave-particle duality gives rise to strange phenomena, some of which are explored in Schrödinger's famous "cat in the box" example. Philosophical debate on Schrödinger's cat still rages.

 Are quarks, the particles that make up protons and neutrons, the truly elementary particles? What are the three fundamental forces that physicists identify as holding particles together? Are they manifestations of a single, universal force?

 Why does physicist Freeman Dyson think that intelligence may persist into the infinite future, even as the universe evolves through an unimaginable richness of new forms and structures?

 Why can't we answer questions about what happened before the Big Bang, or what goes on at the center of a black hole? Can we manage the formidable task of combining quantum physics with general relativity? Physics may well be the most important subject in the universe, a theoretical realm that ranges from the infinitesimally small to the infinitely vast, its laws governing time, space, and the forces that created our world.