A Memorandum to PHYS-LRNR

Something I posted to a listserv devoted to improving physics teaching. I was invited to join by the late Dr. Bob Fuller, a much renowned physics teacher who was inspired by the works of Robert Karplus. He also had Aung San Suu Kyi as a 6th grader and thereafter always tracked her trajectory.

Some of you know that I traffic in visions of elite public schools, government supported, where civilians go for diplomatic training (international student body), but also outdoor skills.

I don’t have the funding just yet (smile), but I do scope out properties, e.g. in remote Oregon (Fossil and Terrebonne, to be specific). Product placement and reality TV play a role i.e. we can’t afford to be ingrown and closed off from a curious public. Too much secrecy will just take us down the road to Rajneesh Puram, a scary memory for Oregonians (cult campus, rural Oregon, runs amok in the 1980s, see documentaries).

When I think of Physics, I think of New Mexico Tech and other places where high energy phenomena (lightning, explosives) get into the coursework. People have intense curiosity about these phenomena in many cases and could learn a lot from controlled experiments in a supervised setting. Youtube is full of “myth buster” types and their physics, be it with dynamite, thermite, hydrogen gas balloons (Hindenburg simulation) or what-have-you.

Yes, we can complain about mindless fixations, but that’s where Learning Physics comes in, right?

When working with Dr. Bob Fuller years ago, I encountered the trebuchet / catapult school of physics. I realize my ideas are not that new.

[ I had no idea ballistics was such a deep science, with new historical material coming to light in such as The Theory that Would Not Die (a great follow-on the Cryptonomicon, though the latter is historical fiction). Firing tables connect to Bayesianism, who knew? ]

I was a Princeton undergrad myself, and even there, Physics 101 had a reputation for being “kinetic” in the sense of staging demos.

Undergrads went for the entertainment, as well as the undergrad credit. Debunking “magic tricks” is also part of the tradition i.e. we argue about what phenomena are impossible, per whatever theory du jour. Skepticism is encouraged, hoaxes recognized (remember The Turk? — now look for today’s equivalents, i.e. fake strong AI).

You may see where I’m going with this: even as a lifelong Quaker (means not into outward weapons, pacifist), I still have to admit my cultural heritage, so I’m going to suggest the Physics Department do the firearm safety, theory and ballistics classes, under the umbrella of Newtonian Mechanics 101.

We’ll be studying many phenomena that require respect for natural laws.

The equipment is stowed and cared for, I’m certainly not talking about handing out weapons (either to visitors or long term staff). This isn’t WestWorld.

So yes, if you go for undergrad physics in one of my brand name charter schools (no I didn’t say Gulen necessarily), they’ll likely let you shoot off guns, even some big ones. But not as weapons. We’ll study the history, sure, but this is not a private military academy. Our students may have religious restrictions and we’ll honor that.

I know that kind of Physics curriculum won’t be popular on just any campus, nor should it be. My schools are remote, in the wilderness. Lots of extreme remote wilderness gear. Product placement. REI. Columbia Sportswear. Nike…

We also teach hunting, though archery equipment (including crossbow) is often preferred and sometimes the targets might be inanimate or robotic (more like laser tag). All terrain robotics. Boston Dynamics.

I’m not saying any of the gun stuff need involve simulated first person shoot ups, the specialty of arcade parlors and American television.

We might use these schools to go cold turkey on Made in the USA television, for the sake of improved psychological health. We can make our own programs. We should at least have a well-stocked DVD library, on the model of Movie Madness (someplace local to me in Portland).

On another topic, I had the good fortune to be the guest of Systems Science program, Harding House, Portland State University, a few Fridays ago. They do an informal speaker series, including with audio-visual hookup.

I presented the following slide deck, which is not so much about physics as recent developments in American literature around the concept of “dimension” (always malleable): https://goo.gl/zoVYF1

The mathy stuff in the philosophy I’ve studied is a lot of it high school level (and below) so I don’t get much push back from the colleges. Lots of polyhedrons. Geodesic domes. Buckminsterfullerene.

Getting back to my proposed First Person Physics, which makes one the subject of interest in some cases (energy as a biological phenomenon, not only stellar or mechanical), a first topic of study might be “recoil” and how that relates to “equal and opposite” in Newtonian terms.

We can datamine Youtube using searches such as “gun recoil fail” (lots of hits, lots of funny ones).

Kirby Urner

Portland, OR

PS: maybe I’ll see some of you at OSCON (Open Source Convention)? Pycon gets lots of physics-minded e.g. Jake VanderPlas, one of our keynote speakers. If you’re using Jupyter Notebooks with Pandas and Numpy, instead of Matlab, you know what I’m talking about.

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