Summer 2003


Browsing Through the Journals

Thomas D. Rossing

• “A call to action” is the title of a guest editorial in the May issue of American Journal of Physics by Oersted medallist and well-known physics teacher Edwin Taylor. “Would you like to begin the study of Newtonian mechanics using no vectors and no F=ma?” he asks. “How about starting quantum mechanics with no complex numbers and no Schrodinger equation? Would you and your students enjoy exploring general relativity with no tensors and no field equations?” Nature’s commands to stones and electrons can be expressed as: 1. Follow the path of least action; 2. Follow the path of maximal aging; and 3. Explore all paths. Taylor argues for the use of the principle of least action in first and second year undergraduate physics courses. It is “simple, potent, and fundamental.”

• Three groundbreaking papers published by Albert Einstein in 1905 are to be celebrated in a new dance production commissioned by the Institute of Physics, according to a note in the July issue of Physics World. The dances, which represent papers on special relativity, the photoelectric effect, and Brownian motion, will be performed for the first time at Sadler’s Wells theatre in London in May 2005 and then go on tour. The performances will be part of a yearlong series of events that form the 2005 “World Year of Physics.” The Rambert Dance Company will also collaborate with the Institute of Physics to develop practical dance workshops for schools and resource materials that can be used to teach both science and dance.

•The July issue of Physics Education includes a special feature on teaching Sound Physics. The five papers emphasize the use of microcomputers and the construction of simple musical instruments. One paper argues that since most music reproduction these days uses digital techniques, we should rethink the way we teach about sound.  

•The entire physics curriculum can be unified and simplified by adopting space-time algebra (STA) as the standard mathematical language, David Hestenes argues in a paper in the July issue of American Journal of Physics. STA simplifies, extends and integrates the mathematical methods of classical, relativistic, and quantum physics while elucidating geometric structure of the theory. This paper is a sequel to the author’s Oersted medal lecture (published in the February issue of American Journal of Physics), which introduced geometric algebra (GA) as a unified mathematical language for physics.

•Australian universities could receive an extra A$1.5 billion (about US$900 million) from the government over the next four years. However, the increases are linked to major reforms, according to a note in the June issue of Physics World. Almost one-fourth of the package depends on universities implementing controversial changes to salary negotiations and university governance.

•A guest editorial “Writing Physics” by N. David Mermin, based on a lecture he gave at Cornell in 1999, appears in the April issue of American Journal of Physics. He discusses the problems in writing about such things as relativity and quantum mechanics, and he tells about his successful campaign to introduce “boojum” into the scientific vocabulary. He considers it unfortunate that so few single-author papers are published these days, because “it is now almost impossible to acquire a sense of a physicist’s style from a perusal of his or her collected works, because many people have never in their lives written a paper without co-authors.” He makes an interesting distinction between “writing physics” and “writing up physics.”

An editorial in the April issue of The Physics Teacher calls attention to the 40th anniversary of that journal, founded by Professor J. W. Buchta in April 1963. The first issue included an article on “Weight and Weightlessness” by Francis Sears; one on “Electromotive Force and the Law of Induction” by Melba Phillips, and many others that are still of interest to physics teachers today. There is an article about “Physics for Girls” and an ad for Minivac 6010, “The computer that fits in your classroom. This seventeen pound wonder adds, subtracts, multiplies, and divides.” Clifford Swartz (SUNY at Stony Brook) was editor of The Physics Teacher for 29 of its first 40 years!

The March issue of Physics Education includes a special feature on Energy and the Environment. Various papers address the greenhouse effect, nuclear issues, fusion power, and energy and the environment. The importance of physics literacy is stressed in the lead paper. Citizens really do need to know about energy, the environment, and a host of science-related topics.

The shortage of female physicists in UK academia and industry stems from the decision made by many girls to stop studying physics at the age of 16, according to an article in the May issue of Physics World. Although all pupils study science for their GCSE exams, only 20% of girls pursue physics at A-level, a fraction that is lower than that in almost every other subject. To discuss the problem, a number of teachers gathered at the Institute of Physics headquarters in London. One speaker observed that the quality of the physics teacher matters more to girls because it is likely to affect their confidence more than it would with boys.