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Re: [Phys-l] terminology

I hate to sound too harsh when I say this, and I really don't intend this as a personal attack, but the argument given here is one of the reasons that I have always contended that PER properly belongs in education departments and not physics departments.

Bob at PC


From: on behalf of John Clement
Sent: Thu 12/4/2008 11:53 AM
To: 'Forum for Physics Educators'
Subject: Re: [Phys-l] terminology

Actually many of the PER physicists have no objections to using the term
heat as a synonym for thermal energy. But engineers are another matter.
They are very rigid with respect to terminology. Textbook writers are also
fairly picky, especially the traditional writers.

The main problem comes in if you use the term heat in the thermodynamics
equation as the thermal energy transferred. Then it really can not be used
as the total amount of thermal energy. So if you are looking ahead to a
thermo course, being picky may be desired. But if you are looking at where
students are when they come into your course, heat is a useful term for
thermal energy. So thermodynamacists would be fairly careful with the word
heat. John Leonhardt (an engineer) ranted on one of his radio broadcasts
about the "misuse" of the word heat.

The Modelers have come up with two useful changes in terminology. Use the
word heating, and working for the transfer of energy. This makes a lot of
sense and distances the terminology from common usage. Since both work and
heat are nouns they tend to make the student picture them as something you
can have, so gerunds are better because they denote action rather than

Many of the PER materials have been designed for intro courses where the
students will probably never take thermo. As a result heat is often used as
a synonym for thermal energy. In particular the Real Time Labs do this.
Even lower level physical science textbooks sometimes try to avoid using
this synonym, but they usually fail. One popular HS physics book defines
heat as the transfer, and then uses the word in sentences which telegraph
the idea of heat as thermal energy.

Professional physicists can fairly safely use the word both ways because
they pick up the meaning from the context. But students do not do this, and
this poses severe problems in thermo. So I have adopted the heating usage,
and for energy either say "heat energy" or "thermal energy" when I am being

John M. Clement
Houston, TX

The only physicists that I know who object to the term 'heat' are
those involved in pedagogy rather than the PRACTICE of physics.
The objectors may be involved in BOTH teaching and practice - but
those who don't teach - don't object to the word at all.

Forum for Physics Educators