The Story of Physics – Chapter 1

For my Calibrated Review Assignment I have my students write short stories summarizing the physics concepts in each chapter.  This came out of a paper I was going over for a colleague in which she allowed her students to pick readings on science topics.  She analyzed the student choices and one thing that came out clearly was that students chose stories that related to themselves (I’m oversimplifying, sorry L).  How can I help students relate to physics, make it seem more human?  We are such story-driven creatures.  You can easily remember the names of characters and plots from stories read decades ago.  A movie with stunning special effects and the latest hot star will bomb if the story doesn’t hold together.  So I decided to have the students  do all the heavy lifting themselves and come up with stories and make it relevant.  They are free to write about whatever they want, however they want, so long as they cover the required topics.

I thought I’d post the sample that I wrote for the assignment.  Who knows, maybe this will become your child’s new favorite bedtime story.  And yes, I have been watching Tudors.

The Story of Physics – Chapter 1

King Henry VIII sat in his throne, his throat and fingers dripping in jewels and gold, a crown on his head with gold points shooting upwards like velocity vectors. Cardinal Wolsey, his trusted aid and chancellor, draped in a dark burgundy robe, walked into the room and bowed low before the king.

“Your majesty, your page said you had some exciting new revelations of great and earth-shattering importance to share with me. I’m not sure I am worthy of such knowledge,” stated Wolsey, his head still bowed to the ground.

“Oh stop groveling. We both know you don’t have a humble bone in your scrawny body,” snapped the king. “I have been studying physics and believe I understand it better than any man alive. Since I am such an august and important person I thought my subjects would like to know where I have been so I had my painter, Master Holbein, follow me around yesterday and paint my location at one second intervals. Now Master Holbein is a mighty painter, but he can’t paint a good picture of me in a second so I let him draw a dot in place of my magnificent visage. I call this a motion diagram and just by glancing at it you can tell many things. For instance, since each dot is numbered in order you can always tell which way I’m traveling. Since the time between each dot is always the same, if you look at how far apart the dots are you can tell whether I am speeding up or slowing down. At the end of the day I had Holbein draw arrows between each point. I call these velocity vectors. See here Wolsey.” The king held up a painted portrait of the throne room they are currently sitting in. It shows a series of numbered dots joined by arrows. King Henry VIII stares into space with a dreamy expression on his face. “Just think, Wolsey, if I have copies of this made people could turn my movements into a dance. These velocity vectors would let them know which way and how fast to move with each step. Unfortunately this motion diagram isn’t to scale so we can’t get actual measurement off of it so I developed something else that lets me calculate my velocity. I call it a coordinate system. Look now at the floor my good man.”

Wolsey glanced down at the floor and saw it covered with a grid and many numbers. One very heavy black line went across the room and another the length of the room. These two lines met at a point near the window that had the numbers (0,0) labeled next to the meeting point. “Your majesty, I’m afraid I do not understand this…” stammered the cardinal.

“Wolsey, Wolsey, Wolsey. It’s a good thing you have me around to run this country. This is called a coordinate system and it allows my page, Thomas, to record my position at regular intervals. My position is given by my location on the coordinate system grid. A pair of numbers gives my location along what is called the x-axis and they-axis. While a motion diagram is good for telling which way or how fast I’m moving relatively speaking, my position can be used to calculate exactly how fast I’m moving and which way I’m moving. From this it is possible to calculate my velocity, which says how much distance I cover each second or each minute. Notice that point over by the window?”

“Where the two thick black lines come together, labeled (0,0)?” asked Wolsey.

“Yes, yes. I call it the origin of my coordinate system. All other points are measured relative to it. All distance and coordinates start at that point. Now that I think about it, I should move my origin to where my throne is, since it IS the center of this whole country. The location of the origin doesn’t matter since we usually only care about changes in position and not the absolute positions themselves.”

“Your majesty, if you will allow me to ask a question?” simpered Wolsey. King Henry VIII gave a wave of his hand in assent. “You mention something about a velocity vector earlier. What exactly is a vector?”

“My dearest Wolsey, I’m so glad you asked. A vector is simply an arrow that gives information about a magnitude and direction. If you draw a line from the origin to your current position that length of the arrow tells you how far you are from the origin and the direction tells you which way. For these velocity vectors I mentioned the length or magnitude tells you how fast I moved and the direction says which way. Now the magnitude of a vector is an example of something called a scalar. A scalar is just a number without direction. How much money is in the royal treasury is another good example of a scalar. Vectors tell you how much and which way but scalars only answer the question ‘how much’.” The king pinched his forehead with his fingers and sighed. “Now Wolsey, I have a huge headache. All this physics is making my dreadfully tired.”

“Very good, your majesty. Perhaps you could enlighten me more on this subject next week,” said Wolsey as he walked out of the room, bowing as he went.

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