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Courtesy photo

This still is taken from the "trailer" made for the Physics 1 course at UMass-Lowell. A car-chase scene from "Point Break" illustrates physics formulae concerning the net force on a sliding object, conservation of momentum, translational kinetic energy and rotational kinetic energy.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Pop goes physics class

David Brooks

Did you enjoy physics class in school? Would you have enjoyed it more if one problem involved calculating the physical constraints of that “Indiana Jones” scene where Indy steals a golden idol on a weighed pedestal and replaces it with a bag of sand?

“It turns out that it would have to be 19 times larger than the bag Indiana uses, for it to work,” said UMass Lowell Professor Dan Wasserman.

As you may recall, Indy’s miscalculation leads to lots of problems – poison darts, a giant rolling boulder; that sort of thing – which carries its own lesson for those entering the sciences: “That shows how much trouble you can get if you mess up an estimation.”

Bringing pop culture into science class is hardly new, but Wasserman, aided by UML junior Shaun Smith, has gone beyond an occasional “Far Side” cartoon in a PowerPoint slide.

For his first year teaching Physics 1, the introductory course for engineers and hard-science students at UML (this is definitely not “physics for poets”), Wasserman is using movies to introduce everything from frictionless surfaces to entropy to spring-mass problems.

Wasserman and Smith have embraced the Hollywood model so much that they even made a “trailer” for their classroom clips, complete with a classic preview voiceover – a deep booming voice lamenting how boring physics classes can be – followed by a score of quick-hit clips from action films overlaid with physics formula that can analyze the scene.

The trailer even has a punchy closing line: “The first casualty of physics is innocence.” (That’s courtesy of “Platoon”; “Surprisingly few movie tag-lines can be converted to Physics-ese,” says Wasserman.)

“I wanted to do something a little bit different – not change the curriculum, which hasn’t been altered – but show the kids how physicists look at the world,” he said in a recent telephone interview.

“One thing that drives my wife crazy is when I point out the bad physics in movies. I thought, driving one person crazy is fine, what if I could drive 300 kids crazy two days a week?” he added.

Over the summer, Wassermen laid out the two-dozen lectures for the course. Then, he said, “Shaun tried to find at least one clip for each lecture.”

In what sounds like an eyeball-scorching exercise, Smith spent the summer poring through everything from “The Matrix” to “The Simpsons Movie” to “Speed” to “Muppet Treasure Island” (plus lots of James Bond) and then pitched scenes to Wasserman that incorporated physics from each lecture.

Fortunately, Smith volunteered at a cable-access station in high school, so he had the video editing experience to make the whole thing work.

Compiling bits of each lecture clip into the tongue-in-cheek trailer – which can, of course, be seen on YouTube – was an extra inspiration.

“I went into class the first day, no word of introductions, didn’t say who I was, just turned off all the lights and played it,” said Wasserman. “The kids were blown away – literally clapped for 30 seconds to a minute. I’ve never been received in a class like that.”

They aren’t alone. I found the film when the YouTube video was praised by the folks behind the Ig Nobel awards. Not bad for an intro physics class.

The trailer includes one cheat – or, following the movie-trailer meme, call it a blooper. It features Shrodinger’s equation in spherical coordinates (over a shot of Doctor Octopus from “Spider-Man II”) although Wasserman admits this topic is a little too meaty for first-year physics, even at UMass Lowell.

Now, this layman-friendly approach is all well and good for us and the students, but not necessarily for Wasserman. It just might run up against what’s sometimes called the Carl Sagan Syndrome, to reflect how the Cornell astrophysicist was scorned by many colleagues after the “Cosmos” TV series, because real scientists don’t popularize.

Wasserman (whose research interests include photonics, semiconductor growth, nanoscience and something called THz technologies) acknowledges that risk but says it’s worth it.

“You talk to physicists, educators, their reactions are going to run the gamut. Some are going to think it’s pandering, that physics is physics, and if they can’t get excited about physics, they shouldn’t be physicists.”

That is part of the reason why he made sure not to change the curriculum to fit the movies.

“I am teaching a difficult course, but we want to make this fun,” he said.

“There is no reason for you to think that fun equals easy. Usually, the opposite is the case: It’s the challenging things that are fun.”

Now, there is a basis for a science-education slogan: “Of course it’s hard! That’s why its fun!”

GraniteGeek runs Wednesdays in the Telegraph and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-5831 or