Physics | General Physics 1
P201 | 3642-3643 | Baxter-Heinz
General Physics 1 is the first semester of a two-semester sequence
that will introduce you to some of the most important ideas of
classical physics. One of the central topics in classical physics,
Newtonian mechanics, will form a large part of our study for the
semester. We will also discuss waves and oscillations, and touch
briefly on the concepts of heat and temperature.
In studying Newtonian mechanics we will use many words and ideas with
which you are familiar; but we warn you now to be wary of relying on
your current definitions and intuition regarding these ideas. It took
humankind almost two millennia (from Aristotle to Newton) to develop
the ideas covered in this course and many of the situations we
consider are far more subtle than they may first appear. By growing
up in the modern world you have become familiar with many of the
words we will use and thus many of you can speak a Newtonian language
(using words like action and reaction, acceleration, velocity, force
etc.), but through your interactions with the world in everyday life
your instincts are far more like those of Aristotle than you may care
to believe. This can lead to mistakes on homework problems and exams.
To paraphrase a great Jedi master “You will have to unlearn much that
you have learned.” The reason for this is that our goal is to
describe the entire universe, not just the section of it we can
interact with directly through our senses in our everyday lives. To
do this requires a framework in which the surface of the Earth
becomes a rather complicated place (with nasty effects such as
friction, gravity, and air resistance). Your instincts already
incorporate these effects into the natural order of things, rather
than seeing them as complications which obscure that natural order.
If you make a conscious effort to cast the problems you confront in
this course in the ideal terms of the Newtonian world rather than
relying solely on your instincts you will do much better on the
exams, and you will along the way develop a deeper appreciation for
one of the greatest intellectual achievements of all time.
Studying physics thus involves much more than just learning a set of
rules. To “do physics” you must learn to think logically, and in the
abstract, and to develop new intuition about how the universe really
works. Note that this involves much more than just memorizing
equations into which you plug numbers! In this course you will be
asked to solve problems in which you are confronted with a new
situation and must devise ways of using what you have already learned
to interpret it.
The quantitative application of physical laws to solving problems is
a major activity in the smaller, more interactive discussion
sections. You will also have the opportunity to perform simple
laboratory experiments that serve several purposes: to demonstrate
some of the concepts covered in the lectures; to expose you to
techniques required to make reliable measurements; and to give you
some appreciation for the interplay between experiment and theory in
You are encouraged to develop collaborations with other students.
Such collaborative efforts help you understand the relationships
among different approaches to the same situation and provide
invaluable stimulation from give-and-take in searching for solutions.
Though our lectures may sometimes give you the impression that
physics is a “finished” subject, you should be aware that many
important questions are still unanswered and the universe continues
to hold many mysteries. To advance our knowledge, physicists and
other scientists need to develop new equipment and carry out
increasingly complex measurements. After all, physics is ultimately
an experimental science, and the only criterion for elevating
someone's idea of a physical “law” is that it is consistent with all
known observations and therefore represents our best guess as to how
the universe truly works.
Meeting all of the above objectives of this course will demand a lot
of work on your part. It is essential that you keep up with the work,
because each topic introduced and each skill taught will build upon
all those developed earlier in the course. If we do our jobs, then
all of the work should be accompanied by a lot of fun, intellectual
challenge, and learning.