Constructing Physics

Elementary Physics Course Notes

Adam Johnston
Department of Physics
Weber State University


Everyone came to class today with happy faces and cheers of joy: It was the first day of physics class.

Adam Johnston introduced himself and the course.  He then rolled up his sleeves and got down to business.  This included going over the course syllabus.
In a nutshell, the goals of the course are:

Conceptual: You will understand some basic concepts in physics, how they are related, and how they provide a structure for understanding nature. These concepts include ideas about matter, energy, forces, and their systems of organization.
Epistemological: You will learn about where physics knowledge originates and how it has been constructed into our current understandings. You will also learn how scientific ideas develop and change, how physics concepts work in concert with other sciences, and what distinguishes science from other understandings.
Societal: You will develop ideas about how physics knowledge is used, both in your personal life and for society in general. You will consider how science and technology are related, what the role of science is in our everyday, and what the purpose of science is.

What is physics?  Well, first of all, what is science?  Science could be summarized as having three important aspects to it:

1. Science asks questions.  This is probably the most important aspect of science.  The questions it asks are numerable, but must they must be such that they can be answered via scientific processes and evidence.  Some examples are:"How does the ball fall down?" 
"How does a frisbee fly?" 
"How does the gyroscope stay balanced and what makes it twist or precess?"
"How does a pickle glow?"
And many others . . .

2. Science uses a very specific process to address its questions.  Some people talk about a "scientific method," but it would be more fair to say that there are lots of ways to answer a scientific question, so long as it uses evidence/data, it generates explanations, and these explanations are testable and tested against evidence.

3. Science produces some answers.  However, these answers are always up for question.  There is no "proof" of any right answer in physics.  We can only see which explanations do not hold up to evidence.  Thus, we can show explanations to be wrong.  The physics rules/laws/theories in our book are those which have withstood the tests of time and have not been shown to be wrong, even in light of new evidence.  However, they could be shown to be wrong in the future.  As Richard Feynman said:

We are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.

If you get nothing else from this course, I hope that you can see throughout the semester that science creates explanations -- so science is a creative endeavor -- and uses physical evidence to test these explanations.  We continually do this in order to refine our understandings; and, we will continually do this kind of thing in our class. 
If you don't believe that science could possibly be wrong, consider that: