Cat versus Gravity
My cat, Quark, jumps onto the counter in the bathroom. There, next to the faucet, is his toothbrush and toothpaste. With his gray paw, he pushes it toward the edge until it falls to the floor. He watches it fall, waits for a minutes, and then does the same for the toothpaste. Once both have fallen, he jumps and continues to bat them around until they hit a wall and cannot go any farther.
This is where I find him in his game of cat versus gravity.
Gravity, the elusive force that physicists have tried for generations to fully understand. A great many theories exist to try to bring together Einstein’s general relativity and quantum mechanics, but as of right now, neither have been fully reconciled into one great unified theory of physics.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about gravity concerns its nature. First, space isn’t just emptiness, but as Einstein’s theories say, it is made up of this fabric called space-time that connects the universe. The mass of the sun dents space-time, and the orbits of the planets, comets, asteroids, and all the other solar system objects are essentially falling toward the sun, but most will never reach it. Why is this so? Due to the velocity of the object’s orbit, the mass of the object, and the trajectory of its orbital path. Once you account for these factors and the fact that the objects has a mass distortion of its own, the path of these objects come to an equilibrium, which keeps them stable in their paths around the sun.
Having written all of this, I now ask my readers, how may of you understood what I wrote?
I’ve encountered many a person who, upon hearing I major in physics, stops and stares at me in awe and tell me they could never hope to understand it. Why is this? Physics isn’t nearly as hard to understand as people may first believe. The math behind it is a bit of a complicated language that is hard to decipher without great training, but the concepts and theories of physics? They can be explained.
Take for instance my gravity explanation. I first used basic physics terminology to explain the nature of gravity. Now I shall ask readers to visualize a large piece of rubber or some other highly flexible material – let’s make it as big as one’s living room floor. Now hang this rubber from the ceiling. Place various round or sort of round (elliptical) objects all over the rubber. This demonstration is a rather crude but effective way to visualize the idea of space-time and space in general. Each of those objects create a dent in the rubber, where they sit quite comfortably. Now send some balls rolling toward these objects, some will slide on past, others will fall into the dents. If thrown at just the right speed, a few might even stay in a dent, but never quite reach the ball at the dent’s center. That right there is the essence of gravity, and the heart of Einstein’s General Relativity.
How many readers found this second explanation easier to visualize? Does it help to understand the nature of gravity? At the very least it might spark more questions, which hopefully will lead to the person investigating the matter more thoroughly.
This is what I hope to achieve when I become a secondary school teacher. I want to be able to stand in front of my students and show them the wonders of science in a way they find easy to understand, because once you understand the concept, it is a little bit easy to learn the language of science – math – that applies the theory in a more experimental setting. The challenge is finding new ways to explain the science, new analogies, new methods of visualization, because this in essence is what will either help people understand or cause them to walk away in bewilderment.