The fascinating physics of everyday life
As you heard, I’m a physicist. And I think the way we talk about physics needs a little modification or change. I want to change the way as people look at physics. Some of them scared of it, some feel piles of weight in its theory. Even some enjoy it and fascinated about its everyday use.
I start with a small story-
I have a grandmother. She is very bright; she hasn’t had much formal education, but she’s sharp. And when I was a first-year undergraduate studying physics at the College level, I remember spending an afternoon at Grandmother’s home studying quantum mechanics. And I had some folders open in front of me, and grandmother came along, and she looked at that folder, and she said, “What’s that?” I said, “It’s quantum mechanics.” And I tried to explain something about what was on the page. It was to do with the nucleus and Einstein A and B coefficients. And grandmother looked very impressed. And then she said, “Oh. What can you do when you know that?”
“Don’t know, ma’am” I replied.
I think I said something about computers, Integrated Chips because it was all I could think of at that time.
But you can broaden that question out because it’s a very good question — “What can you do when you know that?” “that” is physics? And I’ve come to realize that when we talk about physics in society and our sort of image of it, we don’t include the things that we can do when we know that. Our perception of what physics is needs a bit of a shift. Not only does it need a bit of a shift, but sharing this different perspective matters for our society, and I’m not just saying that because I’m a physicist and I’m biased and I think we’re the most important people in the world. Honestly.
What will happen if two black holes colliding, which makes it look worth watching, to be honest? I’m glad I didn’t have to write the risk assessment for whatever was going on there. The point is: this is the image of physics, right? It’s weird and difficult, done by slightly strange people dressed in a slightly strange way. It’s inaccessible, it’s somewhere else and fundamentally, why should I care?
And the problem with that is that I’m a physicist, and I study this. This — this is my job, right? I study the interface between the atmosphere and the ocean. The atmosphere is massive, the ocean is massive, and the thin layer that joins them together is really important because that’s where things go from one huge reservoir to the other. There are lots of things – this is definitely physics.
Let consider a situation,
There are two eggs, one of these eggs is raw and one of them has been boiled. I want you to tell me. Which one’s raw?
To find out you have to set them spinning, and when you stop the cooked egg, the one that’s completely solid, you stop the entire egg. When you stop the other one, you only stop the shell; the liquid inside is still rotating because nothing’s made it stop. And then it pushes the shell round again, so the egg starts to rotate again. This is brilliant, right? It’s a demonstration of something in physics that we call the law of conservation of angular momentum, which basically says that if you set something spinning about a fixed axis, that it will keep spinning unless you do something to stop it. And that’s really fundamental in how the universe works. And it’s not just eggs that it applies to, although it’s really useful at other places also.
Everybody has access to the same physics; you don’t need a big, posh lab.
And so there are two important things to know about science: the fundamental laws we’ve learned through experience and experimentation & work.
The day we drop an apple and it goes up, then we’ll have a debate about gravity. Up to that point, we basically know how gravity works, and we can learn the framework. Then there’s the process of experimentation: having confidence in things, trying things out, critical thinking – how we move science forward – and you can learn both of those things by playing with toys in the everyday world.
So when it comes to reasons for studying physics, for example, here is the best reason I can think of: I think that each of us has three life-support systems. We’ve got our own body, we’ve got a planet and we’ve got our civilization. Each of those is an independent life-support system, keeping us alive in its own way. And they all run on the fundamental physical laws that you can learn in the kitchen with eggs and teacups and lemonade, and everything else you can play with. This is the reason, for example, why something like climate change is such a serious problem because It’s two of these life-support systems, our planet, and our civilization, kind of butting up against each other; they’re in conflict, and we need to negotiate that boundary.
And the fundamental physical laws that we can learn that are the way the world around us works, are the tools at the basis of everything; they’re the foundation. There are lots of things to know about in life, but knowing the foundations is going to get you a long way. And I think this if you’re not interested in having fun with physics or anything like that – strange, but apparently, these people exist – you surely are interested in keeping yourself alive and in how our life-support systems work. The framework for physics is remarkably constant; it’s the same in lots and lots of things that we measure. It’s not going to change anytime soon. They might discover some new quantum mechanics, but apples right here are still going to fall down.
The point of all of this is that, first of all, we should all play with toys. We shouldn’t be afraid to investigate the physical world for ourselves with the tools around us because we all have access to them. It matters because if we want to understand society if we want to be good citizens, we need to understand the framework on which everything else must be based.
Playing with toys is great. Understanding how to keep our life-support systems going is great. But fundamentally, the thing that we need to change in the way that we talk about physics, is we need to understand that physics isn’t out there with weird and strange people. Physics is right here; it’s for us, and we can all play with it. Thank you very much.