Contact

I really like this movie; it’s the closest any feature presentation has come to showing what the life of an astronomer is really like. That’s probably because the movie is based on a novel written by the eminent astrophysicist Carl Sagan, and some of the characters in the story are based loosely on real life astronomers (Jodie Foster’s character is supposedly based loosely on the life experiences of an astronomer named Jill Tartar, and there really is a blind astronomer named Kent Cullers who worked for SETI). Besides that, though, I think “Contact” presents some compelling plot lines, most crucially the question of what really would happen to our society if we made contact with an alien civilization. It also addresses what many see as a conflict between science and religion.

Anyway, the movie is also great because it really tries to get as much of the physics right as possible. The opening sequence has a problem with the scale of objects and distances, but it at least has everything in the right place. The idea that another intelligent civilization may discover our existence by capturing stray radio transmissions from Earth is also sound. That’s how we’re hoping to discover them after all! And wormholes (if they’re real) are one of our best hopes for accomplishing interstellar travel in a single lifetime.

Blog post: Despite the many successes of the movie, the portrayal of the “Twin Paradox” at the end of the movie is incorrect. Explain what is wrong with the portrayal and describe how you would have to revise the movie script in order to gets this point right.

Numerical problem: How fast would you have to travel, according to special relativity, to take a journey that from Earth’s perspective would take 50 years, but from your perspective would last only 1 month?

Please post on your blog by Sunday, 19 Nov, and turn in your answer to the numerical problem in class on Monday, 20 Nov.

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Reading assignment

Ch. 24 of “Bad Astronomy” (available online through the library)

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“Fat Man and Little Boy” and “Gojira”

Thematically, this week’s double feature deals with the morality of having scientists design and build weapons of mass destruction. Many scientists who do this hide behind one of the moral shields presented in “Fat Man and Little Boy”: the scientists are only responsible for developing the weapons, not using them. Other scientists openly embrace their role. Edward Teller was one prominent Manhattan Project scientist who felt that the only way to keep the world safe was for the United States to have weapons of such terror that no other nation would dare step too far out of line. Even after WWII ended, Teller advocated further development of atomic and then nuclear weapons. In a very real sense, he was the architect of America’s modern nuclear arsenal. Still other scientists have felt that there is no way to divorce the results of such weapons’ use from their development, and therefore have refused to work on weapons-related research. (Sadly, that right to refuse to work on weapons research is not afforded to scientists of all countries.)  Clearly, “Gojira” takes the position that the scientists of the Manhattan Project are just as morally culpable for the bombing of Japan as the politicians and military generals who conceived of and planned the actual bombing.

Assignment: You have a two-part assignment again this week, with a blog post and a written assignment. For the blog post, you have a choice:

Option 1: Compare and contrast the moral positions of the scientists in “Fat Man and Little Boy” and “Gojira.” I want you to go into some detail of the various positions and discuss their moral defensibility.

Option 2: Discuss the science of the Godzilla monster. Before embarking on this option, you should first read Ch. 4 of ISMP.

Please post your blog by Sunday, 29 Oct.

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Reading assignment

pp. 225-230 Don’t Try This at Home; Ch. 5 of Hollywood Science

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The Day After Tomorrow

There is plenty of bad physics in this movie, enough that we could make an assignment of just trying to find as many examples as we can. However, there is a deeper issue in the movie – that of global warming. Clearly this is a controversial issue, at least among the public and politicians; scientists are mostly in agreement about the problem, although not necessarily about the potential impact or how to solve it. One of the problems seems to be that, although the bulk of the reliable scientific evidence points toward the reality of global warming and man’s role in it, there are occasionally studies released that appear to contradict this conclusion or scientists who are willing to speak out against this conclusion. However, none of these counter-claims has ever been able to produce as compelling and large a body of evidence against global warming as that in support of it. The naysayers rely on only a few small anecdotal pieces of evidence that seem to point the other way. For unscrupulous politicians and others who have vested interests in the status quo, this is usually all they need. People (particularly non-scientists) are willing to discard mountains of evidence that go against their opinions in favor of a much smaller body of evidence that support them. This is a very illogical way to make decisions, but it happens all the time.

Assignment: There are two parts to this week’s assignment:

1) Go search the web and find at least one piece of what you think is reliable evidence pertaining to the issue of global warming and discuss it.  I want you to provide a link to the evidence in your blog, or at least provide enough information that a reader can go find it.  Discuss why you think the evidence you found is important, and what you base your trust in that evidence on.

2) Analyze the scene from “The Day After Tomorrow” where the helicopters freeze solid and fall out of the sky. Let’s just look at the fuel. Assume each helicopter has 250 kg of fuel on board. Take the starting temperature of the fuel to be at 0 deg C. The freezing point for jet fuel is -47 deg C; its specific heat capacity as a liquid is 2440 J/(kg C); and its latent heat of fusion is 1.09 x 10^5 J/kg. How much heat would need to be removed from the fuel to freeze it solid?

Please post your blog by Sunday, 22 Oct and turn in your answer to #2 in class on Monday, 23 Oct.

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Reading assignment

pp. 130-143 Don’t Try This at Home; Ch. 17 ISMP

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Reading assignment

Ch. 14 ISMP

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Wonder Woman

As far as backstories go, I find “Wonder Woman” to be one of the most compelling and enjoyable movie adaptations, on par with “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight.” Gal Gadot is fantastic. How many women could take on the mantle of Wonder Woman and actually pull it off? From a physics perspective, there’s not a lot that stands out in this movie, but it should be a fun preview for “Justice League” later this semester.

Assignment: Although we must be willing to accept some flaunting of the laws of physics to truly enjoy any superhero movie, I still expect you, as students of physics, to be able to spot obvious flaws. To help you in this, I want you to read and write a summary of one of the chapters from “The Science of Superheroes” (available in electronic form through the library web page) or “The Physics of Superheroes” (available on reserve in the library). Your post should be a comprehensive summary of the chapter, touching on all of the main topics/themes.

Please post your entry to your blog by Sunday, 15 Oct.

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Reading assignment

Ch. 4 Don’t Try This at Home; Ch. 15 ISMP

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Homework

Assignment:

1. Reanalyze one of the scenes from “Eraser” where someone fires a railgun. This time, treat it as an impulse problem to figure out how much force the gun would exert on the shooter when fired.

2. Calculate the force of gravity acting on one of the astronauts from “Armageddon” when standing on the asteroid. You can use the same mass and size of the asteroid as we used in class. Compare that to the force of gravity acting on the same astronaut when standing on Earth.

You will do this week’s assignment on paper and turn it in at the start of class on Wednesday, 4 Oct.

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