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Online introductory physics course – The Mechanical Universe

[Communicating science series]

The current Caltech Weekly (February 10, 2022) highlighted a vintage video series of lectures for an introductory university physics course. Originally produced in 1985, perhaps this content is covered at the high school (or even earlier) level.

While cosmology and physics offer compelling narratives, modern science remains a relatively new way of thinking [1]. And thinking like a physicist still a somewhat novel approach to problem-solving.

• “The Mechanical Universe,” available on Caltech’s YouTube channel, as 52 thirty-minute videos (resolution 480p).

Each program in the series opens and closes with Caltech Professor David Goodstein providing philosophical, historical and often humorous insight into the subject at hand while lecturing to his freshman physics class.

The series contains hundreds of computer animation segments, created by Dr. James F. Blinn, as the primary tool of instruction.

Dynamic location footage and historical re-creations are also used to stress the fact that science is a human endeavor.

The series was originally produced as a broadcast telecourse in 1985 by Caltech and Intelecom, Inc., with program funding from the Annenberg/CPB Project.

The online version of “The Mechanical Universe” is sponsored by the Information Science and Technology initiative at Caltech.

The Caltech Weekly also notes a forthcoming book Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow‍.

Nicole Yunger Halpern, PhD (PhD ’18) delivers a steampunk adventure guide to how mind-blowing quantum physics is in transforming our understanding of information and energy.


[1] As I’ve noted elsewhere (as a theme of this blog). So hopefully future random on-the-street Q&A interviews – à la a Jay Leno “Jaywalking” segment – regarding science and the universe will show a deeper “matrix of meaning.”

Quantum mechanics math basics – tasting the notation

Biggest ideas in the universe – Sean Carroll chats concepts

Quantum physics myths – communicating science

World Science Festival 2019

Communicating what physics says — Domain of Science YouTube channel

Communicating what physics says — The Science Asylum

March for science

7 thoughts on “Online introductory physics course – The Mechanical Universe

  1. [From The Caltech Weekly (February 17, 2022) > “Tinkering with Physics“]

    Demo’s are an integral part of any introductory physics course. Here’s Caltech’s online demo catalog.

    • Caltech > Physics > Demo’s > Physics Demonstration Archive

    This online database catalogs over 270 demos kept at the Feynman Lecture Hall.

    Oftentimes, we find that the laws of physics can be rather unintuitive, and it can be hard to appreciate that when all we see is numbers and letters on a chalkboard. The aim of these experiments is to demonstrate these behaviors in engaging and practical ways. Most of them are performed every year for our introductory physics classes. If you would like, you can view all of the demonstration videos in this playlist.

    This archive has a searchable interface, …

    Many of these demos can be assembled yourself, but some do rely on specialized equipment and materials. This database catalogs our specific setups, which may be different from more common versions. So, whether you are looking for inspiration for your own physics experiments or you just want to see how a certain physical phenomenon works, we hope you’ll find it in this archive.

  2. Science tools
    Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

    Live Science claims that these “are the best physics books for anyone looking for an accessible and engaging immersion into the world of physics and wondering about our universe.”

    My take: Some of these books are suitable for those with a general interest; others are more suitable for learning at the advanced high school or college level where a wider grasp of vocabulary and math is required [1].

    • Live Science > “Best physics books: Change the way you look at the universe” by Megan Kachigan (June 5, 2022)

    We’ve collected the best physics books written by some of the world’s most renowned scientists, including Stephen Hawking, Brian Greene, and Richard Feynman. These are the books that break down complicated matters to simple, easy-to-read concepts, get to the heart of the matter quickly without getting lost in the details, and entertain you along the way with their humor and personal stories.


    [1] Here’s my categorization of some books in their list:

    • General interest

    Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2017)

    Cosmos by Carl Sagan (1983)

    • More advanced

    The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene (2010)

    Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli (2012)

    A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1998)

    • For classroom or guided learning

    Thirty Years that Shook Physics by George Gamow (1985)

    Quantum Mechanics: The Theoretical Minimum (illustrated edition) by Leonard Susskind and Art Friedman (2015)

    The Feynman Lectures on Physics 3-book set (newly edition 2011, originally published in 1960’s)

  3. Planetary system stability

    Here’s an interesting – and visual – way to explore the dynamics of planetary systems.

    • NASA > APOD > “Game: Super Planet Crash” (2022 June 19)


    Game Credit & License: Stefano Meschiari (U. Texas at Austin) & the SAVE/Point Team

    Explanation: Can you create a planetary system that lasts for 1000 years? Super Planet Crash, the featured game, allows you to try. To create up to ten planets, just click anywhere near the central star.

    Planet types can be selected on the left in order of increasing mass: Earth, Super-Earth, Ice giant, Giant planet, Brown dwarf, or Dwarf star.

    Each planet is gravitationally attracted not only to the central Sun-like star, but to other planets.

    Points are awarded, with bonus factors applied for increasingly crowded and habitable systems.

    The game ends after 1000 years or when a planet is gravitationally expelled.

    Many exoplanetary systems are being discovered in recent years, and Super Planet Crash demonstrates why some remain stable. As you might suspect after playing Super Planet Crash a few times, there is reason to believe that our own Solar System has lost planets during its formation.

  4. Although limited to some still visuals [1], this article explores the basic mathematical model of the Ideal Gas Law (aka general gas equation) and use of a pressure and temperature sensor for graphs. An overview suitable for the classroom.

    Wiki’s article contains more history of its derivations (both empirical and theoretical).

    The general gas equation PV=nRT is an example of thinking like a physicist (as discussed elsewhere), namely, simplifying gas molecules as microscopic balls: pressure, volume, and temperature not being actual properties of any molecule, but as emergent statistical properties useful for everyday practical applications.

    Terms: kinetic energy, average speed, Kelvin scale, Boltzmann constant, mole, Avogadro’s number.

    • Wired > “What Is the Ideal Gas Law?” by Rhett Allain, associate professor of physics at Southeastern Louisiana University (Jun 19, 2022) – Whether inflating balloons or tires, the relationship between pressure, volume, and temperature requires some physics and chemistry.


    [1] I noticed that some YouTube videos on the Ideal Gas Law also take a mostly mathematical approach, focusing on the equation rather than apparatus demonstrations – such as adjustable gas tubes, vacuum and air pumps, etc. YouTube videos by scientific equipment manufacturers more typically include such equipment.

    An apparatus example:

    Gas law demo

  5. Fluid dynamics shapes my perspective on quantum theory. But what is fluid dynamics?

    The latest issue of Caltech Weekly (July 7, 2022) profiles the research of a graduate student in aerospace, including a video of his lecture on fluid dynamics.

    • Caltech > Events > Science Journeys > “Fluid Dynamics – from Disturbances to Turbulence” (November 20, 2020)

    • YouTube > Caltech (Caltech Academic Media Technologies) > “Fluid Dynamics: From Disturbances to Turbulence, with Salvador Gomez” (Nov 20, 2020)

    The storms we see on Jupiter and the motions in a coffee cup can be explained by analyzing the equations of fluid dynamics. These equations are used to design airplanes, predict the weather, and even make art!

    How do engineers and scientists solve these equations?

    In this video, Salvador Gomez explains how the important information can be identified to simplify the problems so that engineers and scientists can make predictions in fluid flows.

    The article contains a “Pop Quiz” of questions:

    • What is a fluid?
    • What is the name of the equations that govern fluid dynamics?
    • How do computers simulate fluid flow? (Hint: think of a videogame)
    • How do experimentalists visualize the flow?
    • Why are computations and experiments not enough?
    • What fluid property tells us that oil will float on top of water?
    • What fluid property tells us that honey is “thicker” than water?
    • If I have two fluids on top of one another, how can I see if they are stable?
    • What is turbulence?
    • About how big are the features in sharkskin? Why does this make it hard to model sharks swimming?
    • How can you compress a photo?
    • Why would it be important to make a less complicated model for turbulence?

    And a Q&A:

    • Does fluid mechanics work in black holes?
    • What is a characteristic length?
    • And how do people know which length is important and to be the characteristic length?
    • How do airline companies know turbulence is costing them billions of dollars? Do they have sensors to detect turbulence everywhere around the wings during each flight?

    Video screenshot

  6. Here’s a novel contemporary visualization series for introductory physics, whether in the classroom or not, seeking to “balance between science and entertainment, rigor and fun” (as I learned as a middle school math teacher).

    • Symmetry Magazine > “Meet Quantum Kate” by Sarah Charley (8-30-2022) – The animated YouTube series Quantum Kate is a teenager’s guide to modern physics.

    The series of pithy animated videos was created by Francesco Sannino, a theoretical physicist and professor at the University of Southern Denmark.

    Quantum Kate explores topics such as entanglement, the Standard Model, special relativity and dark matter. Sannino and colleagues at Centre for Cosmology and Particle Physics Phenomenology spent hundreds of hours with animators thinking about the stories and the format, Sannino says.

    • Example > YouTube > Quantum Kate > “The standard model!” (Feb 27, 2020)

    Quantum Kate screenshot

  7. Getting the message across: Ready, set the egg timer … go, explain the Copenhagen and Everett interpretations of quantum mechanics.

    Graphics, animation, cartoons, slick editing, humor, enthusiasm, …

    This article contains links to the winners’ videos.

    • Physics World > Education And Outreach Blog > “How to explain quantum technology in just three minutes” by Margaret Harris (02 Nov 2022)

    This was the premise of the inaugural “Quantum on the Clock” competition, which challenged A-level and equivalent students from across the UK and Ireland to create creative, clear, engaging and accurate short videos on any aspect of quantum science and technology.

    The videos of all the winners, runners-up and highly commended entrants are now available on the Institute of Physics’ YouTube channel. Check them out for a glimpse into the future of quantum science – and science communication.


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