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?minimalist physics syllabus

Quoting Brian Blais <bblais@BRYANT.EDU>:

Perhaps we should think about it this way: given a set of students who will
most likely not go into science fields, who will work most likely for
corporations, and have 1 semester to learn "Physics", what do you cover?

IMHO that is a most excellent question, the sort of question
that should be asked more often.

I would go even furhter: rather than just polling our fellow
physicists about what to cover in a minimalist physics course,
we should reach out to the corporate worker, managers, and
even homemakers and ask *them* what they think should be

Of course, such responses must be filtered and analyzed. For
one thing, a response that says "students need more XXX" doesn't
tell us what can be dropped to make time for XXX.

As one contribution to the survey, let me take off my physicist
hat and put on my flight-instructor hat.

1) Students come to me
knowing not nearly enough about energy in particular and the
great conservation laws in general. The importance of this
can hardly be overstated. There are common pilot decisions
(life-and-death decisions, no kidding) that make sense when
analyzed in terms of energy but are quite counterintuitive

2) My observations are *not* sufficient to say much about forces.
Students tend to have an easier time with the necessary force
concepts ... but I can't say for sure whether that's because
the force concepts are intrinsically easier to visualize, or
because the typical student has been through a typical HS or
middle-school course that spent a lot of time on forces.

3) Students come to me having no clue about torque and angular
momentum. Fortunately, the main torque issue (weight and
balance) can be handled during preflight and can be handled
by simple rote procedures, so I don't need to make a big fuss
about this.

Given one semester, it is *impossible* to cover every topic in a physics
textbook, so which do you choose? Given this constraint, I choose energy
over force,

I would start with energy and organize the course around
energy, but I would at least mention force now and then.
In particular "force dot dx" is a contribution to the energy,
and the notion of energy is cheapened if you don't know that.
(A good classroom demo [actually a hallway or playground demo]
is the tug-of-war with block-and-tackle. A small kid pulling
on the fall can overmatch N large kids pulling on the block,
but must pull a very long distance.)

feeling is that the essence of physics can be summarized by a few concepts:

* estimation, and dealing with large and small numbers
* critical thinking, and falsification of explanations
* conservation laws as a tool to describe many diverse phenomena, from the
largest scales to the smallest
* relativity, the role of measurement, and the wave nature of matter as the
"unintuitive" modern science, upon which all technology rests

Given the choice between
-- intro to force, versus
-- relativity and wave mechanics

I've gotta vote for force.

... Kepler's law ...

As another contribution to the survey, let me report what *two*
of my relatives, both homemakers, *independently* had to say:
++ valuable: basic notions of leverage and mechanical advantage
++ valuable: auto mechanics. For instance, suppose you are
going X mph and you are approaching a brick wall that is Y
yards away and Z yards wide; should you try to brake or try
to steer around it? Also the physics of why you should wear
seat belts.
++ valuable: basic notions of wiring and electricity
++ valuable: any experience using measuring instruments and
tools (drilling, soldering, ...)
-- not valuable: memorizing the names of elements in the
periodic table without learning anything about any particular

Also always keep in mind the importance of having some
depth and some width: