Learning About Physics

Interested in learning more about physics? The resources below should be helpful. You should realize, however, that some of the information below may be difficult to understand at the high school or freshmen level. Do not let that discourage you. Simply reviewing the abstracts, introductions and conclusions can give you a sense of the key ideas and implications being discussed.

Books Related to Physics

"Big picture" books related to cosmology
Three popular books related to frontiers of particle physics and gravity:
Some non-technical books related to nonlinear dynamics, pattern formation, and networks (related to the question of how does complex structure arise in the world and how does one describe complex structure):

Articles Related to Physics

  • There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom by Richard Feynman, the 1965 Physics Nobel prize winner. This is a famous and nontechnical article from 1959 about the many opportunities to develop an engineering capability at the molecular level, foreshadowing the modern field of nanoscience.
  • Ultimate physical limits to computation, by Seth Lloyd. This paper describes how fundamental laws of nature associated with quantum mechanics, thermodynamics, and general relativity (Einstein's theory of gravity) allow one to deduce the ultimate limits that a kilogram of matter can compute. Not only are brains and current computers far from achieving the limits, the ultimate computer requires the extremes of crushing the computer until it is just about to turn into a black hole and simultaneously heating the computer until it becomes a super-hot plasma of about 109 K. This paper is a nice example of how order-of-magnitude estimates can produce interesting insights about a practical issue like computing.
  • The Unreasonable Effectiveness Of Mathematics In The Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner (1963 Physics Nobel prize Sciences winner). Professor Wigner addresses a deep mystery, which is why is it that mathematics, a human invention, turns out to be so effective in understanding the universe.
  • Is the moon there when nobody looks? Reality and quantum theory by N. David Mermin. This article is an accessible and not-too-technical introduction to one of the strangest features of quantum mechanics, the idea of entangled particles, and to the implications of entanglement for understanding "reality". Briefly, it is possible to arrange two particles, say two photons arising from the annihilation of a positronium atom, to be entangled which means that these particles have behaviors that are correlated in a way that makes no sense from a classical (non-quantum) point of view: measurements on one particle of an entangled pair must produce results that are correlated with measurements carried out on the other particle of the entangled pair, even if the two particles are separated by a great distance (say a light year) and even if the measurements are simultaneously carried out on the two particles, more quickly than light can travel between the two experiments. Read the Mermin article to get a better understanding.

Physics-Related Videos

The following are videos of general interest to physics majors and science students. Enjoy!

  • One-Minute physics, amusing cartoon animations of interesting physics.
  • Physics for the 21st Century, set of 11 videos about current frontiers of physics. Two of our Physics faculty appear in these videos, Professor Mark Kruse appears in Unit 1 (searching for the Higgs particle at the Fermilab Tevatron) and Professor Ayana Arce appears in Unit 2 (about the Large Hadron Collider).
  • How to tell if an egg is boiled or raw. Why is this useful illustration of inertia not taught to everyone in elementary school?
  • In Search of Giants with ex-pop musician and physicist Brian Cox.
  • Magnetic levitation of a living frog in a solenoid that generates a 16 tesla magnetic field. A nice discussion of the science behind the levitating frog is given here and involves the concept of diamagnetism a weak repulsion that any material object feels when pushed into a magnetic field.

    Note: One tesla is about 10,000 times stronger than the Earth's magnetic field at sea level so a 16 T field is strong indeed. In fact, this field strength would quench a superconductor so one has to use a solenoid build out of "ordinary" metal to generate such a strong field. Can you figure out what it would take to float a 65 kg Duke student via diamagnetism?

  • Inner Life of a Cell. Although this simulation is perhaps more well known to biologists as an illustration of the extraordinary complexity of a living cell, it is full of interesting examples of equilibrium and nonequilibrium phenomena of interest to physics students. Examples shown in the video include: self-assembly of microtubules, kinesin motors that transport vesicles along microtubule railways, transcription of DNA followed by translation into proteins, diffusion of intramembrane proteins in a liquid lipid bilayer, and so on. Most of what is shown in this movie is poorly understood, there are many interesting open questions to explore.
  • Homemade Spacecraft: a video from a simple home-brewed device consisting of a thermally insulated video recorder attached to a weather balloon, with a cellphone included to indicate the GPS location of the device.
  • Feynman:
    • Feynman video lectures on the character of physical law. Richard Feynman was one of the great theoretical physicists of the 20th century and a great expositor of physics. In the 1960s, he gave several popular public lectures about physics at Cornell University that later turned into a book The Character of Physical Law. You may especially enjoy the sixth lecture about the quantum mechanical view of nature.
    • Fun To Imagine, some videos of Feynman explaining science to a television audience.
  • The current (2010-2011) television series Through the Wormhole, narrated by Morgan Freeman, has numerous physics-related themes that you will likely enjoy: time travel, black holes, and antimatter are several examples.
  • What happens when you stick your hand into the high-energy (7 TeV) proton beam of the Large Hadron Collider? Several physicists at the Large Hadron Collider were asked this question, a partial summary of their answers is given in the video. Note that even for experts, it take some careful thinking and calculation to answer a seemingly simple question.

    This related website discusses an actual related example that occurred when, in  1978, a graduate student accidently put his head in the path of a proton beam from the U-70 particle accelerator in Russia. This was the world's most powerful accelerator in 1967, with a maximum beam of energy of about one percent the energy of the LHC. Remarkably, the student survived the experience.

  • Mad Science videos related to Theodore Gray's book Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home--But Probably Shouldn't. One of my favorites (and something to do at an SPS meeting) is to Trap Lightning in a Block.
  • Cloud chamber that reveals the passage of invisible high energy subatomic particles moving through the air. Many science museums have a big cloud chamber: a dark box with what looks like a fine mist falling, with white vapor trails that appear randomly when a rapidly moving charged particle like a muon or proton (cosmic ray) passes through the fog. (The particles could also come from some radioactive source placed in the chamber.) As a charged particle moves through the supersaturated alcohol vapor, it ionizes alcohol molecules which then triggers local condensation of the gas into a small liquid droplet, which then scatters light and is visible as a white spot. The group of spots along the trail is basically a small linear artificial cloud, hence the name "cloud chamber".

    Cloud chambers are easy to build and great fun. You are welcome to set up and try the commercially made cloud chamber in the Physics Demo room.

  • Acoustic levitation of an object by using strong sound waves. A friendly explanation is given here.
  • The Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan rather famous video in which he philosophizes about how the great scale of the solar system and universe should help put human social problems in perspective.
  • A Cosmic Dawn, jazzed up and inspirational musical video of Carl Sagan and his view of the universe, from the Symphony of Science.
  • J. Robert Oppenheimer reminiscing about the detonation of the atomic bomb.

Websites Related to Physics