Friday, December 4, 2009

Get a Grip on Physics

There's a story in the news about Tiger Woods that has something to do with him running his Cadillac Escalade into a tree and his wife being mad and a golf club. I only know what I've heard from stories making fun of it for being a story. But today something actually interesting came out of this story. The Wall Street Journal published a photo of the wrecked car and you could see a book in the back seat. And immediately after the photo came out sales of that book spiked on Amazon. (story)

Now if it was just a Tom Clancy novel it wouldn't be interesting to me. But it was Get a Grip on Physics, a book by John Gribbon about modern Physics, the relativistic stuff that is not only hard to understand but largely useless in daily life, like time dilation and length contraction at speeds approaching the speed of light. Why would the kind of people who are interested in a story about Tiger Woods personal life also be interested in relativistic physics? They should really be reading about Newtonian Physics, like how an object in motion tends to stay in motion until acted upon by a tree.

I've read John Gribbon's more popular book In Search of Schrödinger's Cat. I read it when I was taking Quantum Physics in college. My professor only worked out the equations on the board for us and didn't attempt to explain what any of it meant. Any equation that starts with a capital sigma or capital pi is trouble for me. It means you have to sum up or multiply all the stuff that comes after it over a range of values plugged in wherever that little i shows up. I can't possibly visualize where that is going. This including constants with units that establish the relationship between the energy of a photon and the electromagnetic frequency, and then there's the actual energies and angular frequencies and all the 2pi you need to make it come out in Hertz..... I was in a pit of despair already, so reading the extra book intended for an audience of wannabes like myself was my attempt to simply understand the physicists who understand the math, since the math itself was not doing it for me.

All I got out of those equations was a strong memory of how they sounded pronounced with a heavy Austrian accent. Picture Arnold Swarzenegger reading out equations with A and a subscript greek letter psi and the Dirac constant that's Planck's constant h with a line through it. It came out "Ape sigh" and "h stroke."

The other thing I can remember about Quantum Physics is a bit of graffiti in the girl's bathroom in the physics building that said, "Heisenberg was somewhere near here. What time?"

So if Get a Grip on Physics is as thorough as In Search of Schrödinger's Cat then I think most of the people who bought it will not get much out of it. Perhaps it is merely a prop, something to brandish at Starbucks so somebody might come up and ask you what you think of Tiger Woods having a sidechick. If I see anybody with that book I'm pretty sure I'll have to go up and say "Your energy called. It wants your mass back at the speed of light squared."

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