Physics Course Teaches Students the Science Behind Hot Button Political Issues -Mellon College of Science - Carnegie Mellon University

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Physics Course Teaches Students the Science Behind Hot Button Political Issues

Physics is at the heart of an enormous number of important problems facing our society. What can we do to prevent the world’s nuclear material from being used by terrorists? Why don’t we have more battery-run cars? Political leaders and concerned citizens alike have a hard time evaluating these types of issues because they don’t understand the underlying science.

The Carnegie Mellon Department of Physics is preparing future leaders to tackle such issues in the Physics for Future Presidents course. The course arms students with some of the essential facts and pieces of physics behind many of the hot button issues that dominate today’s political discourse.

“I felt a little bit of empowerment after taking this class,” said sophomore Caroline Kessler. “I was a lot more prepared to talk about global warming and alternate energy sources, and I realized how relevant physics is to our everyday lives.”

Taught for the first time in Fall 2009, Physics for Future Presidents covers the physics concepts underlying everything from solar power and GPS location technologies to traffic lights and stadium TV screens. Although the class is geared toward non-physics majors, the class isn’t Physics for Dummies, explain the class’s instructors Professor Gregg Franklin and Associate Professor Markus Deserno.

“The material is advanced. Students learn about interesting and important topics that even a typical physics major will not know. In fact, we learned a lot teaching the class!” said Franklin.

During the semester-long class, which is based on Richard Muller’s “Physics for Future Presidents” course that he teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, students learn a range of fundamental physics concepts, including the ideal gas law, force and acceleration, electric and magnetic fields, and the index of refraction. With this knowledge base, students are able to understand topics such as why the levees broke in New Orleans or what makes battery-powered cars possible.

“The things we covered in the class aren’t what I learn every day. I don’t have a science background at all,” said Kessler, a creative writing major. “But the idea of this class is that anyone can learn physics.”

Sophomore Alexander Moser, who took physics classes in high school, found the class very useful. “Even something that I might have known before, I now have a better chance of explaining to someone else,” said Moser, a computer science major.

After covering the section on light and waves, Moser said he had a better grasp of how the eye processes light and how an RGB computer monitor works. And Kessler said that she was able to stop and think about how a black light worked when she came upon one at a party.

Deserno and Franklin want students to go one step further than understanding how our everyday world works. They aim to prepare students to make informed decisions based on science rather than opinions based on misunderstanding.

“The world is subject to physics bounds. Understanding the underlying concepts can be a tool for cutting through nonsense and building a quantitative argument as to why something is right or wrong. If you misjudge the science, you can make a wrong decision,” said Deserno.

Moser has taken that lesson with him. “I’m frequently reminded of the Physics for Future Presidents class when I see something on the news or in the newspaper, and I have a better grasp of the science behind it,” he said. “I feel qualified to be President now.”

By: Amy Pavlak