The Dance of Physics: Developing a Conceptual Language for Physics Through Physical Movement

As someone who teaches basic mechanics to hundreds of college students each year, I see again and again the frustration many students have in understanding and manipulating the symbolic constructions we use to describe motion, forces, particles, etc.  Beside standard mathematical notation (which is already challenging for many), the symbolic representation of physical quantities includes letters from both Latin and Greek alphabets, some of which are obvious to an English speaker (e.g., m for mass, F for force) and some of which are not (e.g., p for momentum, µ for the coefficient of friction), and none of which may be clear to someone accustomed to an Arabic or Chinese alphabet or spells mass as khối lượng (as the Vietnamese do).  There is also a fair deal of redundancy (e.g., g is used for both the surface gravity on Earth and for the mass unit of grams) that can lead to confusion. Most importantly, decoding this symbology draws mental energy away from understanding the underlying concepts, leading to the strange situation in which we end up teaching “concepts” and “problem solving” as distinct activities.  It is no wonder that most students decide Physics is just too hard.

[Read more…]

Adrian Phillips describes his Project Planetaria Summer Research Project

Adrian Phillips, a UCSD student in Visual Arts, worked with Project Planetaria investigator Michael Trigilio over the summer of 2012 through the CalIT2 Summer Undergraduate Research Scholars Program to develop some of the ideas we are pursuing.  Specifically, he investigated PPD construction, interaction with select media, and representations of movement.  Here’s a Adrian himself talking about his summer research:

Genetic Cage Scores

As we are preparing possible project ideas for our class next Spring, I had a chance to explore a simple Cage score (after John Cage) using as a driver not chance but genetic code.  Gene sequencing has exploded in the past few decades thanks to advancements in technologies and techniques, creating an entire industry (with occasionally dubious aims).  The pace of this advancement is remarkable:  the Human Genome Project took 13 years to construct a full sequence of the human genetic code from 1990-2003, at a cost of $3 billion; the same sequencing can now be done in 1 day for $1000.

[Read more…]

Astronomy readings for TDDE 131

In preparation for our Spring 2013 course, here are some of my recommended Astronomy/Physics readings/viewings:

Shhh. Listen to the Data (Toni Feder, in Physics Today, 65, 20, 2012; published by the American Institute of Physics): describes how massive astronomical datasets are being transformed into sound to listen for distinctive patterns.

The Fingerprints of Stars (YouTube, on PhD TV, created by Jorge Cham): a complete overview in animated comic style on how we know what we know about stars, based on interviews with John Johnson and his group at Caltech.

Cosmic View: The Universe in 40 Jumps (Kees Boeke, 1957, published by The John Day Company): The inspiration for Ray & Charles Eames more famous Powers of 10 movie (they also have an extensive website), this book provides both a numerical context and hand drawings of various size scales in the Universe.  Note that some of the ideas presented in this book no longer hold true (e.g., that galaxies are uniformly distributed through the Universe). An interactive version of this idea has also been created recently by Cary Huang at this website.

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (Leonard Mlodinow, 2008, published by Pantheon Books): This is a wonderful book about randomness, numbers and probability, and really you could read the whole thing in a day and learn tons. For this class I recommend focusing in particular Chapter 7: Measurement and the Law of Errors (pp. 124-145) and Chapter 9: Illusions of Patterns and Patterns of Illusions (pp. 169-191).

Creating Hubble’s Technicolor Universe (Ray Villard and Zoltan Levay, in Sky & Telescope, September 2002, pp. 28-34): This article describes some of the tricks of the trade for how Hubble Space Telescope is used to create stunning views of the Universe.  The Hubble website provides some more detailed primers on astronomical image processing, a tool called FITS Liberator and step-by-step guide for reading in and manipulating standard astronomical FITS (Flexible Information Transport System) files, and some sample datasets.  These tools can be used as part of a “contest” by Hubble to help citizen scientists find Hidden Treasures in the Hubble Archive.

Screen shot 2013-02-12 at 10.45.51 PM

TDDE 131: Special Topics in Design: Project Planetaria

The course is on! We just got our Spring 2013 course listed online; now time to grab willing and eager students (and finish up the syllabus).  Check back to the website where we’ll be posting class materials!

Screen shot 2013-02-12 at 9.44.22 PM

Neighborhood Planetarium

On May 20th we wondered the streets of North Park, an urban neighborhood in San Diego. Equipped with our sun-safe gazing-glasses, we were able to see the eerie and downright hypnotic (partial) annular eclipse.

After spending some selfish time on our own, we decided that walking to a purveyor of annular-foodstuffs (i.e. pizza) was a good choice. Along our walk we met with neighbors, pedestrians, & commuters who were themselves enjoying their Sunday afternoon stroll. Over and over again we would ask, “Want to see the eclipse?” We’d share the glasses and our neighbor would gaze at the sun. Every time, the neighbor-in-question squealed with delight.



Small children, old men, moms & dads, 30-something urbanistas: they were all transfixed by the delight, joy, and overwhelm of the eclipse.

The Moon passes between our planet and our Sun. Our neighbors and we watched in delight, and we laughed.

Scale sizes of planets

We’re often talking about notions of scale: human and solar sizes, time-scale, ranges-of-experience, light-seconds vs. light-years. As we imagine a system of observation and performance, it’s exciting to consider the notion of a planet-sized planetarium.

Something we’ve been kicking around lately is the idea performances/observations/actions/productions which more deliberately engage the idea of “solar scale.” I was suddenly reminded of artist Linda Montano’s 7 Years of Living Art performances, in which Montano performs/wears/lives a color for seven respective years. Montano encourages us to think about performances that transcend ordinary notions of “performance time.”

Another example of “planetary scale” thinking can be found in the Long Now Project.

“The Long Now Foundation was established in 01996 to creatively foster long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years. ”


%d bloggers like this: