Oberlin Blogs

A Robo-pansy's Winter Term Project

January 19, 2011

Sophia Chen ’12

This Winter Term, I'm working on campus with physics professor Aaron Santos on making pedagogical-but-not-pedantic, extremely low-budget videos on various physics demonstrations. The goal is to present cool demos that are scientifically correct, but simple and un-technical enough that a sixth grader or grandmother could understand it. Right now I'm primarily working on a script for a demo on polarized light. For those of you unfamiliar with polarized light, all of your confusion will be dispelled when we finish this video and I upload it to this blog. For now, be assuaged by the power of Wikipedia.

I chose this Winter Term project amid a rather harrowing fall semester because not only is it relatively low-key, but it also bridges several of my interests. I haven't really expressed this classic liberal arts student dilemma in my blog yet, but like every other Oberlin student, I'm rather spazzy in my studies. At times, I'm an analytical robot who churns out math problems, and at other times, I'm an emotional pansy who reads poetry. I cried at a Ben Affleck movie once on an airplane.

As I approach the third-to-last semester of my college journey, I often find myself cornered with the choice between the robot and the pansy. This past semester, I took two physics classes and a computer science class and periodically felt like an electrical engineer had stolen my heart and replaced it with a sinusoidal waveform generator. Fortunately, for Winter Term, I was able to find a more well-balanced routine by picking the child of the robot and the pansy: this project requires some creativity. If I find a tear-jerking physics demonstration, I might even venture to use a little emotion in my scripts.

I started writing last week and found that expressing physical concepts in simple terms is a challenging task. Professors teach physics in the language of math, not in the language of words, and math can be scary and/or boring to many grandmothers, sixth graders, and non-physicists. Instead of using math to explain polarization, I've been trying instead to imagine physical happenings: light being absorbed, electrons jiggling, molecules arranged in chains. I've also been trying to come up with suitable analogies along the lines of Schrodinger's cat to illustrate different physics concepts. Unfortunately, these analogies easily fall under the categories of "boring" or "inaccurate." I got carried away last week and embarked on an explanation that compared the electric field of light to grated cheese. That was highly inaccurate and also unhelpful.

But it's fun, and this project helps me relate concepts I learned several years ago more concretely to the world outside of the physics building and deepens my appreciation for physics. It's also a welcome break from endless problem sets and hours of computing, and trying to explain these concepts to an audience gives these topics a more human side. Maybe my sinusoidal waveform generator is made of flesh after all.

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