Physics in Your Life

Course No. 1260
Professor Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
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4.7 out of 5
61 Reviews
73% of reviewers would recommend this product
Course No. 1260
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Course Overview

Why does a curve ball curve? Why does ice float? What's the perfect way to cook egg custard? How do CDs and DVDs work? Why don't your legs break when you jump off a chair? What keeps a moving bicycle from falling over? These questions involve physical principles that relate not only to interesting aspects of our daily lives, but also explain such phenomena as the cause of hurricanes, the formation of neutron stars, the ability of water to dissolve different substances, and other fundamental features of reality.

Therefore, this course that explores the physics of everyday events is not just informative and fun, it has the potential to lead to a deeper understanding of the universe.

But it takes a superb teacher to make these connections—to start with a nuts-and-bolts description of how a refrigerator works and end up with a profound insight into the ultimate fate of the cosmos.

Professor Richard Wolfson of Middlebury College is the ideal teacher to take you on this journey. The New York Times praised him as "absolutely stellar" in his Teaching Company course on modern physics, Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists. Now he brings the same enthusiasm to "everyday" physics, dealing with our basic understanding of the physical world as it applies to commonplace technologies and natural phenomena.

A Nonmathematical Course Where "Seeing Is Believing"

Physics in Your Life is more than a course in physics and more than a laundry list of "how things work." In fact, it combines the two, offering a back-and-forth interplay between everyday applications of physics and the concepts needed to understand them.

"My approach is entirely qualitative," says Professor Wolfson. "I believe you can understand physics, and understand it deeply, without using mathematics."

How does he do it? In the spirit of "seeing is believing," he uses an impressive array of experiments, gadgets, props, computer animations, short videos, diagrams, and pictures. Like Mr. Wizard of the classic TV science series, Professor Wolfson is a born showman. Among his hands-on demonstrations:

  • A blown-up balloon is bathed in super-cold liquid nitrogen to show the contracting effect that heat loss has on the air inside the balloon.
  • Professor Wolfson cranks a muscle-powered generator to demonstrate the surprising effort required to produce a mere 100 watts. Imagine if you had to generate all your electricity this way!
  • A giant magnetic coil on a rotating shaft reveals the ingenious simplicity of the electric motor, used in everything from electric toothbrushes to locomotives.
  • A curious phenomenon unfolds as a magnet is dropped through a hollow aluminum tube. Aluminum is non-magnetic, which means the magnet won't stick to it. But can you guess what happens?

You will also see experiments with lasers, lenses, bowling balls, gyroscopes, musical instruments, and more. And Professor Wolfson walks you step-by-step through the processes by which computers compute—from the level of electrons moving through semiconductors to binary bits, bytes, CPUs, RAM, all the way up to text and pictures appearing on your screen.

What You Will Learn

This course is organized into six modules, treating five specific realms of physics and their related applications, plus a sixth area devoted to a potpourri of topics:

"Sight and Sound" begins with the technology behind CDs and DVDs, using these devices as a springboard to study light, sound, and other phenomena. You will explore how these principles relate to such topics as rainbows, optical fibers for communications, musical instruments, and laser vision correction.

"Going Places" looks at motion and its connection to modes of transportation such as walking, automobiles, airplanes, and interplanetary probes. This module is based on Newton's laws, generalized to include such topics as fluid motion, conservation of energy, and the dynamics of space flight.

"Plug In, Turn On" looks at the intimate connection between electricity and magnetism that is at the heart of technologies from electric motors and generators to videotapes and credit cards. Electricity and magnetism join to make possible electromagnetic waves, which enable the growing host of wireless technologies.

"From Atom to Computer" starts with the element silicon and builds through progressively larger scales-transistors, logic circuits, microprocessors, motherboards, and peripherals-to create a conceptual picture of how a computer works.

"Fire and Ice" introduces heat with topics ranging from physics in the kitchen to Earth's climate and how humans are altering it. Also covered are thermal responses of materials, including the unusual behavior of water in both liquid and solid form. The module ends with the second law of thermodynamics and its implications for human energy use.

"Potpourri" offers a miscellany of topics in physics: the workings of the satellite Global Positioning System; rotational motion in phenomena from dance to pulsars; lasers and their many uses; nuclear physics and its multifaceted role in our lives; the mechanics of the human body and how physics enables us to explore the body through medical imaging; and the evolution of the universe from the big bang to you.

From Everyday Examples to Universal Principles

The beauty of this course is that it takes you from the specific to the general. "This is not a standard introductory physics course," says Professor Wolfson. "It's not a course that's going to lay out a lot of physical principles, and then give you a few minor examples of them. Rather, it's going to focus more directly on the application of those principles in your everyday life."

For example, at the beginning of the first module you delve into a mystery that may have long puzzled you: How are music and images encoded in the plastic discs that are CDs and DVDs? As you discover how microscopic pits on a rotating disc are interpreted as ones or zeroes by a laser optical system, Professor Wolfson relates these processes to principles you will encounter later in the course:

  • Discs rotate, as do objects from car wheels to planets.
  • Discs store information, a role they have in common with magnetic tapes, credit card strips, semiconductor electronics, phonograph records, and DNA molecules.
  • Discs are read with an optical system that involves lasers and the reflection, refraction, and interference of light.
  • The stream of information coming off a disc is manipulated by physics-based electronic circuitry. It is then converted into light and sound using a variety of physics principles.

"CDs and DVDs are metaphors for almost all of physics," says Professor Wolfson. Many disciplines—from quantum physics, to optics, mechanics, and electronics—are involved in making CDs and DVDs work.

Bringing Physics Down to Earth

Physics can get complicated, and whenever the discussion threatens to become too abstract, Professor Wolfson pulls you back to Earth with a memorable explanation or analogy:

  • On the information content of a CD: "Brahms's Symphony No. 3 as recorded on a disc is nothing but a single number. It's a binary number with many, many digits. When you go out and buy Microsoft Office to put on your computer, it's nothing but an enormous binary number. When you write your Ph.D. thesis, there's nothing but a single, large number."
  • On the nature of waves: "A wave of people in a stadium is a true example of a wave. The disturbance consists of the people removing themselves from their seated positions, standing up, and sitting down again. That disturbance moves around the stadium, and it carries with it the energy that it takes to lift a person out of his or her seat—but it does not move the people around the stadium. A wave, then, is a traveling disturbance that carries energy, but it doesn't carry matter."
  • On the energy source of hurricanes: "A hurricane works by the latent heat of water evaporated from the ocean, released in the air to drive the hurricane. Similarly, in a double boiler, latent heat from the boiling water is released in contact with the bottom of the upper pan, and that's what causes the food to cook."
  • On computer crashes: "In a computer hard disc, there is a head that literally flies, held aloft by aerodynamic forces. The distance is on the order of one millionth of one meter. A disc crash is like an airplane crash. The flying disc hits a particle of dust, loses those aerodynamic forces, and crashes into the disc, damaging the surface—and there goes your Ph.D. thesis if you haven't got it backed up!"

Clearing Things Up

Professor Wolfson also clears up some common misconceptions:

  • Sonic booms: People tend to think that sonic booms occur at the moment an airplane breaks through the sound barrier, and then it's over. That's not true at all. As long as an airplane is moving faster than the speed of sound, it's dragging a big shock wave behind it, creating a boom as it passes.
  • What stops a car? Brakes do not stop the car. They simply stop the wheels from turning. What stops the car is the frictional force between the wheels and the road, which is most efficient when the wheels are still rolling.
  • Centrifugal force: There is no such force. The term centrifugal force is used to describe apparent but actually nonexistent forces one experiences in rotating frames of reference-a sort of fudge to make Newton's laws seem to apply in a situation in which they don't apply.
  • "Zero g": It's a common misconception that there's no gravity in space. Apparent weightlessness arises any time the only force acting on an object is gravity. That condition is called "free fall."

Physics in Your Life is the perfect complement to Professor Wolfson's other Teaching Company course on physics, Einstein's Relativity and the Quantum Revolution: Modern Physics for Non-Scientists. And while the two courses treat very different realms, they are united by the energy and enthusiasm of an educator whom Teaching Company customers call "brilliant," "exciting," and "one of the most dynamic and engaging professors I've ever had the pleasure of listening to."

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36 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Realms of Physics
    Professor Richard Wolfson introduces the field of physics and describes the fundamental role it plays in our lives. He discusses the difference between classical and modern physics and outlines the course scope. x
  • 2
    The Amazing Disc
    This lecture uses compact discs and DVDs as metaphors for the whole realm of physics, especially for the phenomena of light and sound. x
  • 3
    The Wonderful Wave
    Most of our contact with and knowledge about the world comes from waves. This lecture explores basic wave behaviors and properties, and everyday phenomena. x
  • 4
    Seeing the Light
    We learn how images are formed in the eye and how the principles of optics are used in everything from telescopes to microscopes, CD players to cameras. x
  • 5
    Is Seeing Believing?
    Nature and technology have a variety of tricks for altering the path of light, some of which form images while others result in such beautiful optical effects as rainbows. The optical fibers that carry our email and web pages exploit such "tricks." x
  • 6
    Music to Your Ears
    Sound is a propagating disturbance that carries energy but not matter. Sound waves are important not only for hearing but for probing structures as diverse as the Sun and developing fetuses. x
  • 7
    May the Forces Be With You
    The single most important concept in physics is that forces cause not motion but change in motion. This lecture introduces Newton's famous three laws of motion. x
  • 8
    Aristotle’s Revenge
    Friction is a hidden force that obscures the simplicity of Newton's laws. Without friction, we couldn't walk, run, or dance; start, stop, or steer a car; or even balance. x
  • 9
    Going in Circles
    Motion in curved paths, especially circles, is important in everything from atoms to cars to satellites to galaxies, yet few ideas in physics are so confusing. x
  • 10
    Taking Flight
    We look at how balloons and airplanes achieve flight. Newton's laws provide a simple but full explanation for flight. A more sophisticated explanation involves the physics of fluid motion. x
  • 11
    Into Space
    This lecture investigates the physics of space flight, from orbits to the misnamed state called "zero gravity." We also look at many applications of space technology. x
  • 12
    A Conservative Streak
    Under the right conditions, energy and momentum are conserved—that is, their values do not change. This explains many of the interactions that occur. x
  • 13
    The Electrical Heart of Matter
    This lecture looks at aspects of electricity, including electric charge and electric fields, and the role electricity plays in holding matter together. x
  • 14
    Harnessing the Electrical Genie
    Current is the net flow of electric charge. Voltage is the energy imparted per unit charge. Together, they give us electric power. Electric charge flows more easily in some materials than others, and these differences are exploited in technology. x
  • 15
    A Magnetic Personality
    Magnetism arises from moving electric charges. We use this relationship in a huge number of ways, from motors and loudspeakers to clocks and circuit breakers. x
  • 16
    Making Electricity
    To make electric current and keep it flowing, we need devices that can separate positive and negative charge and keep them separate. Here we look at devices from everyday batteries to solar cells. x
  • 17
    Credit Card to Power Plant
    Electromagnetic induction is the basis for electric generators and a host of applications—from devices that read credit cards, to tape recorders, bicycle speedometers, and electric toothbrush chargers. x
  • 18
    Making Waves
    Everything we know about electromagnetism is described by Maxwell's equations. Maxwell's equations lead us directly to the nature of light, radio, x-rays, and other electromagnetic waves. x
  • 19
    The Miracle Element
    Professor Wolfson uses a series of six lectures to take us from the atomic level all the way up to a complete computer. This first lecture examines the intriguing properties of the element silicon, essential to modern electronics. x
  • 20
    The Twentieth Century’s Greatest Invention?
    One of the most important inventions of the 20th century is the transistor, a tiny semiconductor device at the heart of every electronic gadget, from the simplest radio to the most complex supercomputer. x
  • 21
    Building the Electronics Revolution
    The revolution that enabled modern electronics came in the early 1960s, when engineers learned to combine multiple transistors and other electronic devices on a single piece, or "chip," of silicon. x
  • 22
    Circuits—So Logical!
    The fundamental building blocks of computers are digital circuits that store and process information in the form of binary numbers. x
  • 23
    How’s Your Memory?
    We investigate how individual electronic memory cells work and how they're assembled into voluminous computer memories. x
  • 24
    Atom to Computer
    We learn what goes into a complete computer, comprising a microprocessor, motherboard, and different peripheral devices. x
  • 25
    Keeping Warm
    This lecture introduces a number of ideas related to heat, including the flow of heat, temperature and how it is measured, and energy balance. x
  • 26
    Life in the Greenhouse
    Professor Wolfson discusses the process of energy balance as it applies to Earth's climate and how human activity may be altering that climate. x
  • 27
    The Tip of the Iceberg
    We investigate changes in state between liquids, solid, and gases, and how these affect different substances, including water, which has some unusual properties. x
  • 28
    Physics in the Kitchen
    The kitchen is full of examples of physics, especially relating to heat transfer. We explore refrigeration and the many styles of cooking, including broiling, boiling, steaming, and microwaving. x
  • 29
    Like a Work of Shakespeare
    The writer C. P. Snow compared the second law of thermodynamics to the works of Shakespeare as being something every educated person should know. x
  • 30
    Energy in Your Life
    How much energy does it take to supply our energy needs? Professor Wolfson inventories our energy use and gives a visceral demonstration of what that implies. x
  • 31
    Your Place on Earth
    Featuring a potpourri of physics applications, Professor Wolfson begins a five lecture series which opens with a look at the Global Positioning System (GPS), a constellation of satellites that can pinpoint a location on Earth within inches. x
  • 32
    Dance and Spin
    The physics of rotational motion leads to some surprising phenomena, with roles in such everyday occurrences as bicycle riding, ice skating, and weather. x
  • 33
    The Light Fantastic
    The laser is among the most important inventions of the 20th century. We explore different types of lasers and their uses. x
  • 34
    Nuclear Matters
    Nuclear physics is inextricably part of our lives—in energy, defense policy, medicine, airline security, and even in smoke detectors and radiocarbon dating. x
  • 35
    Physics in Your Body
    Beginning with the mechanics of how the human body works, we then investigate medical techniques that use physics, particularly medical imaging tools such PET, CAT, and MRI. x
  • 36
    Your Place in the Universe
    Professor Wolfson closes with a philosophical look at where we humans fit into the universe, particularly how the material from which we are made comes, ultimately, from stars and from processes that commenced during the Big Bang. x

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Your professor

Richard Wolfson

About Your Professor

Richard Wolfson, Ph.D.
Middlebury College
Dr. Richard Wolfson is the Benjamin F. Wissler Professor of Physics at Middlebury College, where he also teaches Climate Change in Middlebury's Environmental Studies Program. He completed his undergraduate work at MIT and Swarthmore College, graduating from Swarthmore with a double major in Physics and Philosophy. He holds a master's degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Michigan and a Ph.D. in Physics from...
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Physics in Your Life is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 61.
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Very good, just not great I'm a little surprised myself that I only can give this course 4 stars. I certainly learned a lot. DR.Wolfson is an enthusiastic and excellent teacher. Oh sure you get a little tired of his "more on this in module three, lecture fourteen". And there is something about him: maybe his youthful demeanor that seems like a high school teacher. But we all would have been lucky to have such teachers in high school. What separates this course from being excellent in my view is a lack of that wow factor. This course is non the less very worthwhile. I would give it a grade of [B+}. It is copyrighted (2004).
Date published: 2009-08-15
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun with Science This is a very practical physics course. It is a really fun course and every lecture is full of demonstrations that really help to keep things interesting and fresh. The lectures are well organized and Dr. Wolfson is an enthusiastic professor, his enthusiasm is genuine and infectious. I enjoyed his presentation style so much that immediately upon finishing this course I went and bought his Relativity and the Quantum Revolution course. The best way to sum up this program is to call it fun with science; however, it is not all fun and games as there were several times when I had to go back and re-watch a section over again because I just didn't get it the first time. But in the end I was able to grasp everything to my satisfaction. It is also a good mixture of subject matter. There really is a lot to this course.
Date published: 2009-04-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fun Physics Professor Wolfson is a passionate and lucid communicator of the concepts of physics, and his enthusiasm shows in these lectures. This series could be used as a great supplement to high-school or university physics courses, since many of them are taught in a way to emphasize the mathematics & problem-solving, and often students wind up memorizing formulas without truly grasping the basic principles behind them. Professor Wolfson's course could help fill that gap.
Date published: 2009-04-05
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Perfect for "car schooling" My 13 year old home schooled son is a gymnast. His commute to gym is roughly 30 minutes each way - we usually start a "Joy of Physics" lecture as we pull out of the driveway and finish it just as we are pulling up to the gym. I'm enjoying listening to the lectures as much as my son enjoys watching them. He volunteered today that he is getting so much out of our commute since we started using Teaching Company DVDs - especially this series, which has demystified so many issues for him and sparked his interest to learn more. Thanks to this series, he really can explain why the sky is blue!
Date published: 2009-03-24
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The Title Says It All There is an awful lot of information packed into this course, and not just because it has 36 lectures. Prof. Wolfson is a very energetic teacher, and things will come at you pretty fast. This should not be a concern, however, since you are blessed with a 'rewind' button. You might think that the title "Physics in Your Life" means that you're getting a small subset of the subject - only that which relates to your day-to-day experiences. But that's not quite correct. In fact, an awful lot of physics comes into every-day play, and you'll be getting a real good look at the bulk of this science. And this is a "survey" course, meaning it uses minimal (and optional) math, and what there is requires nothing more than first-year algebra. In other words, it takes you up to, but not into, problem-solving. It's a look down from the top of the entire area of the subject, i.e. the "big picture". And, relating these topics to things you see every day helps you to learn the essence physics. The six major sections of this course, six lectures each, are in general: optics, motion and mechanics, electromagnetism, computers, thermodynamics and energy, and miscellaneous topics. This is not the same sequence you'd most likely find in a formal course, but you may find Prof. Wolfson's sequence more logical and easier to assimilate. When you're done with all this, you may very well find you don't look at ordinary things in the same way. This course provides a very useful framework for what you see every day, and the 'what and how' of those things. Let me give you just one example from the second module. Regardless of what you see on NASCAR, locking up the brakes and wheels is NOT the best way to stop a car. A car stops faster if the wheels are still rotating. This is contrary to intuition, but Prof. Wolfson explains and demonstrates this, and backs it up with the real-life application of anti-lock braking systems. This course is loaded with graphics and table-top experiments which demonstrate the topic at hand. I personally found these made the course easier and much more enjoyable than what I remember from high school. Prof. Wolford's demonstration of a generator and 100W light bulb is an eye-opener, and there are many others. In a course like this, minor mistakes, mostly mis-speaks, are understandable, and even these are remarkably rare. But there's one typo error on a slide which went uncaught that you need to know about. Near the end of lecture 24, there is a slide that shows numbers represented in bases 2 (binary), 8 (octal) and 16 (hexadecimal) as well as base 10 (decimal). At the bottom of the slide, it shows that hexadecimal '4E' converts to binary '0010 1110', and that's wrong. That's the binary code for hex '2E'. Hex '4E' in binary is '0100 1110'. If you're new to these kinds of conversions and are trying hard to follow them, this error can really confuse you. But this single error shouldn't influence your decision. If you want to see how physics - which may seem abstract to you now - comes into things you see and do every day, this course will do it. I especially recommend this course to a student who will be taking a high school physics class. Starting 'cold' in the classroom requires the student to get used to the concepts, terminology and the problem-solving all at once, and this can be daunting, to say the least. Taking this DVD course ahead of the classroom course can give the student a significant head start, which just might reflect in the grade.
Date published: 2009-03-07
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A real teacher Professor Wolfson is an outstanding teacher; he is seldom at a loss for the best words and illustrations to express an idea. I'm old (the dark side of 70) and not a good classroom student. It takes a good classroom teacher to hold my attention. It takes an outstanding classroom teacher to get through (to me) the way Richard Wolfson did in this course. My feeling is, “If you don’t learn this material from this teacher, you are totally disinterested in the subject”. Yep it’s that good.
Date published: 2009-03-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from For social science types too! Dr. Wolfson knows his material AND knows how to present it so we “social science types” can comprehend it. His demonstrations are memorable and created many physics “break throughs” for me. I purchased and am currently attempting to read his physics textbook. “Einstein Demystified” is an excellent book as is his TC course on Einstein and Relativity. **** BUT **** Dr. Wolfson says WAY too many Umms…I realize it helps HIM to slow down his rate of delivery but it becomes quite irritating when done so frequently – like ALL the time in this course!
Date published: 2009-02-18
Rated 5 out of 5 by from BEST WAY TO LEARN PHYSICS!!! Prof. Wolfson is so energetic and so enthusiastic and so inspiring that you don't even take a break between lectures! I only took a survey course in Physics in college, so this course was an eye-opener for me. It was fun, it was practical, it was greatly informative, and I'm about to take it for the second time. Prof. Wolfson is perfect for this course...and you will love his Rube Goldberg contraptions!
Date published: 2009-01-25
Rated 4 out of 5 by from During my pre-med studies of 20 years ago, I struggled with the concepts of physics. These have now been made clear thanks to Dr. Wolfson.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great! Better tahn PBS's Nova! Just what I was hoping it would be. Although the prof talks too fast, the booklet enables me to fill in what whizzed by me.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from Professor Wolfson is a good presenter and his demonstrations were helpful in understanding his statements.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof Wolfson's course is a memorable blend of theory and practical demonstrations, each reinforcing the value of the other
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from This is an excellent course - I have already graduated from two schools in electronics and this course made many things more clear-professor Wolfson is great.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 4 out of 5 by from This speaker needs training in presentation. He should look at his own DVD or listen to his tape
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from I would order any course presented by Richard Wolfson. He is the most effective teacher I have ever known.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Excellent! Clear, concise, timely, from atoms of silicone to computers - The Best!
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Professor Wolfson was so dynamic and interesting that I was rivited to watch the entire course in 2 1/2 days. He was fantastic.
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Prof Wolfson is by far the best college level instructor I've even experienced. He rates "excellent". *****
Date published: 2008-10-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Dr. Wolfson covers his topics in physics thoroughly and in an entertaining fashion. His sequence of subjects is novel and he manages transitions and cross-references extremely well.
Date published: 2008-10-17
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