forces, matter, and energy

The concepts of force, matter, and energy get mixed together and confounded. For example, it’s easy to say that forces, matter, and energy are all in the following photos. But these are all distinct from one another, even though they’re related. Where and how do you see forces, matter, and energy in these?

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Generally, I don’t like to define words up front. In this case, I just want us to start painting edges around these terms, not so much to define them as to make sure we recognize that they’re all playing in different but complementary fields.

A force is an action. It’s the push or pull between two objects. These always come in pairs exerted between two objects, one on the other and the other on the one.

Matter is stuff. You can put it a container and close the lid. Sometimes that container will need to be really, really big, but if it’s a thing or a collection of things and takes up space, you have some matter.

Energy — oh, energy. This, to me, is the hardest because it feels so obvious but also isn’t either a piece of something nor something I push against. It’s a property of matter that describes what the stuff is doing or what it could do. Energy is transferred or changed in matter by forces (even though not all forces do this).

Clear? No, I didn’t think so. For now, let’s be content but confused with the idea that these three categories are completely different, like Doritos are different from love is different from sound. You know that one might have relevance to the other, but you can’t compare Doritos to love to sound. They aren’t even on the same plane.

science in the making

Collectively, our class recorded positions and times of a bowling ball. This sounds like a funny thing to say unless you were there to witness it. The bowling ball got rolled down a long hallway, and groups were able to synchronize their timing devices and associate a time with a given position of the bowling ball as it passed by. After a few different trials of this, we collected back into the room to share data. After all, the data are all only interesting once we see them all together. That’s an important point of the exercise.

We didn’t have time to compile all of our data from all four trials of the bowling ball rolling, so I left it as “an exercise for the reader,” as they say. (Sometimes in physics it seems like this is what we call the really hard problems, as though the textbook author or teacher doesn’t actually know how to finish the problem. I’m guessing that sometimes there’s some truth to that.) So, we set up a place where everyone could contribute their data online, and as those points were entered in a graph was created to display what the data look like. Right now, as I’m writing this, students are contributing their data points, and, so far, here’s what a graph looks like:

Almost everyone has put in their contributions, but two of our research groups haven’t yet submitted their data. (Don’t worry, it wasn’t due yet and I was getting ahead of myself.) You can see these points in their default positions on the left side. I’d just entered false numbers in for these at first, so the points show up, but not in the right place.

But we know where they’re going to go, don’t we? There’s a pattern here that the rest of the data is describing for us really clearly. If graphs could talk, this one would be screaming at us about the trend that’s taking place. If those last two data points come in and are not fitting into the line that’s inferred from the rest of the collection, we’re going to be really surprised and we’d probably even question what went wrong.

In fact, not only do we know about where these next two points are supposed to go, but we know an infinite amount of information from this graph already. The bowling ball was in all of the places in between all of these data points, all of the positions and times represented in this pattern. But we didn’t need to get an infinite number of stopwatches and recorders of the bowling ball. By knowing about only ten points in time and space, we could construct all of the information about all of the travel of this bowling ball. This is incredibly powerful. When was the last time you figured out an infinite amount of information and were able to represent it in one picture? In science, this is just what we do.

Why is this important?

First, this exercise — the collection and organization of data, the analysis and pattern-finding via the graph — tells us about patterns and how we use them to make sense of data. No single point of data was important. And, really, even though the collection of the data was essential, it wasn’t this assembly of ten points that was important. It was the overall trend that the collection showed to us. It shows us clearly what would happen in between all of our recorded observations; and it also shows us what happened even before we were collecting data. (Look closely: Can you describe where the bowling ball was when the time was at “zero?” What does that mean?)

Second, it tells us that Nature plays fair. Nature is understandable, predictable, and consistent. If it didn’t play fair and play by the same predictable rules all the time, we couldn’t do science. In fact, we couldn’t have even imagined the existence of anything scientific. Never would we have even thought to invent science if we didn’t have a universe that is operating in a consistent way. We probably can’t even imagine a universe that wouldn’t behave that way. We take it for granted that it plays fair because we’ve never known a universe that does not. (Okay, once in a while “life isn’t fair,” but that generally has more to do with the whims of people, and they’re really complicated bundles of nature, making it hard to get all of the right data to predict what they might do, not to mention why.) If Nature did not play fair and consistently, we would now have only ten or twelve bits of information that have no connection to anything bigger. Instead, we know everything.

Finally, that pattern and the interpolation of what nature is doing tells us something very specific. This is a bowling ball rolling down a hallway — to be sure, a questionable practice, but one that pays scientific dividends. That ratio of how far (position change) to how long (time change) is constant. We see this by virtue of the fact that the slope is always the same. What’s remarkable is that no one is doing anything to the bowling ball except for making sure it doesn’t run into anyone. And yet, it keeps going in exactly the same way throughout the trip. This is remarkable and miraculous, at least to my common sensibilities. How does the ball know to keep going, and especially to keep moving at exactly the same pace? Also, to be clear about our amazement, we don’t know why this is. It just happens. It’s not something that we could logic for ourselves without having rolled the bowling ball or some other object — maybe a hockey puck on ice or a craft through space, for example. We trace this kind of finding and this kind of data collection back to Galileo in the early 1600s; and, Newton used this to build the same physics that we use to run NASA’s space programs. We call this particular rule, “Newton’s 1st law,” but it’s more appropriate to say it’s the wonderful nature of motion. Motion is natural and consistent, not because we are doing anything to make it so, but because we are not doing anything to the bowling ball while it’s rolling. We’ll be trying to make sense of this.

bubble observations

This narrative describes our first task.

Walking into a first day of a science class, one of the proclamations that we’re conditioned to hear is about the power of the “scientific method.” There are plenty of first chapters of textbooks that devote themselves to describing a bit about what science is for, how it’s both an extension of things we naturally do, and a sharp contrast to other ways of knowing. And then there’s that scientific method. Each text is a little different on this point, but the essence is that we root out truth by testing our explanations against what we actually observe.

But I think we need to start somewhere else, back just a bit. I’m not sure that we really always agree on what it means to “observe.” And, it’s probably good to actually put this into practice. Observation is like any other skill.

For me, a sensible introduction to physical science is to begin with soap bubbles. This could be with a sink full of water and some dish detergent, or it could be some canister of stuff that you have left over from a summer birthday party. There are a few recipes that I like, but the basics of any of them include about 12 parts water and one part simple dish detergent. Put a wand, a straw, or even the end of a pipe or funnel into the solution so that a film stretches across one end, and then blow through the other.

What do you observe?

Get out your science journal. This could be a simple composition notebook, lined or unlined in any fashion you like. For me, the important part is that it’s a notebook that accompanies you and records ideas, observations, questions, and pursuits that may or may not lead to anything else. It’s not necessary that it’s pristine or even particularly well organized. You can display your edited genius in some other way, but this should be something that’s flooded with mistakes, ramblings, and snippets of ideas. It’s your blueprint of potential.

Find a page to start and document bubble observations. Having a partner in this pursuit is useful, not only because one person could be blowing the bubbles and the other could observe something closely, but because one person’s observation can lead to another. That said, there’s something about just sitting with an observation all to yourself. It’s up to you. (Often I’d have you start this in class, with a partner; and then you’d head home armed with your notebook and your bubbles to do more observations yourself.)

One of my favorite photos is this one of a girl playing with a giant soap bubble.

What do you observe?
What do you observe?

It’s a good example of the many things that we could find in a soap bubble if we look closely. First, there’s the bubble itself, stuck to her hands. There are colors that are rainbow-ish, but not really the same colors that you see in a rainbow. Then, looking a little more closely, there’s a reflection of the sun at the top of the bubble, as well as another at the bottom of the bubble. There’s a big drop of bubble goo starting to form at the bottom, too. And there are hands — not just those holding the bubble, but reflected images of those hands at different places. Look some more and you’ll see that the photographer is in this image as well, reflected back from the front surface, his camera and hand towards the center, his legs and feet at the bottom. Each time I look at this image, I see something new.

Your first observations might be about how the bubbles form, how they fall or drift, what they do when they hit the ground, how they interact with one another, and on and on.

Keep observing. There’s no rush, and there’s plenty to see.


The following essay, written by Samuel Scudder, was about his first experience in graduate school. He showed up to essentially begin his apprenticeship as a research scientist, ready to study insects. His professor greets Scudder and tasks the student with observing, of all things, a dead fish.

The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz,” by Samuel Scudder (1879).

Give this a read and consider what’s happening to Scudder and how he’s learning to observe. Go back to your own bubbles, again, and observe as Scudder might recommend to an apprentice scientist.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.


What kinds of things do you observe with the bubbles now that you didn’t see before?

In general, we see more details that might seem more elaborate; we might take a pencil (like Scudder did) to start to observe through writing and drawing; and it might occur to you for the first time to note that the bubbles are round, just like fishes are symmetrical.

It should be no surprise that Scudder wasn’t the first nor the last person to observe a fish. Here’s another account:

The Fish”, by Billy Collins (as published in the New York Times, along with some recipes)

Billy Collins is a notable poet, holding the position of U.S. Poet Laureate from 2001 – 2003. His observation of a fish is quite different — and not just because he’s at a restaurant in Pittsburg, although that’s clearly part of it.

Consider the perspective of a poet. Go back to your bubbles and observe again, still using that notebook, but now looking through the lens of a poet or perhaps even another artist. You don’t need to write your own poems (though no one is stopping you). Just observe from this new perspective.

Now, what do you see?


The point of this exercise is two-fold:

First, observation is something that we take for granted as a practice and a skill. It’s at the very heart of what science does, where it starts. We don’t come up with questions or investigations or models or anything else until we’ve experienced phenomena in some way. Sometimes, the experience is in the mind’s eye, constructed from other things that we know, like with something as exotic as a black hole. Most of the time, though, I suspect that we start with an observation that’s very simple, seen but unobserved until we take the time to really delve into it.

Second, “observation” isn’t an action without context. The observations are different and differently directed if we look at something as a scientist rather than as a poet. As a scientist, we look for patterns that lead to an understanding of how things are put together, why they might move the way they do, how they function. As poets, we probably associate other meanings with what we see. Empathy and metaphors, statements about the human condition and how we can relate these to one another — these are all outside of scientific reach, but they’re still valuable in their own way and with their own purpose. The work of the scientist might impact the work of the poet (or the painter or the philosopher or the writer or anyone else), but it’s important to be clear about which of these lenses we’re wearing. Throughout this course, we’ll refine the lens we use as scientists, but this doesn’t mean the other lenses are less valuable. They just have different goals.



One of the very first tasks of this course is “introductions.” All the students in the class write a quick description of who they are, and I’m always impressed with people who can play water polo or bowl competitively; people who have complicated family lives that are really relatable or totally different from my own; people who aspire to be teachers but have an apprehension about science. People reveal all this stuff simply because I ask them, and I’ve found that as the semester goes by I get to learn more things about you, which only makes me realize that there’s still more that I don’t know. You’re all really interesting and complicated.

So, I figured that it’s only fair that I am at least as transparent about who I am. I’m a lot less complicated than you might think. And you probably don’t need to know anything about me in the first place, but I’ll offer it.

If you’re realizing right here on this line that you’d rather not take any additional time to learn any more about me, you can stop. I love teaching and the natural world and my family. Everything else derives from this. The end.

Here’s the rest:

Sometimes I have to give a presentation and someone will ask for a “bio,” or, I have to fill out a report an include what’s known as a curriculum vita or “CV.” I stow these kinds of things in the trunk of my university webpage, and I distill a few things onto a personal page, but a lot of that paints the same, plain picture. It’s just me in my khaki pants, maybe with my shirt sleeves rolled up.

Here’s a list of things that I like, in no particular order:

  • I’m married to Karyn, and we have two daughters. They used to be much smaller. The daughters, I mean. Karyn’s about the same size as when I first met her. I really like going home.
  • I love being outside on a trail. I try to do a long backpack trip each year  (including this recent one to get a view of the solar eclipse from a pass in the Wind Rivers) as well as some shorter treks. Over the last few years I’ve started trail running, even though I used to thing that running is dumb. Now, a ten-mile run is one of my favorite things to do early on a Sunday morning.
  • I play piano. When I say “play,” I really mean that, rather than “practice.” I’m terrible at practicing. I’m better at making things up than at reading notes.
  • I run a program where we get to play and do science with kids in Ogden City parks over the summer. I host a small conference in science education and I do a lot of other work with teachers around the state. I recently got involved with a dance|science project that actually put me on a stage and now has me collaborate to host workshops. I’m also working (slowly) on a project to document and describe more deeply what it means “to learn.” All of this is called “work,” which makes me giggle.

A summary of all this is that I really, really love to play with the natural world and try to figure out how we learn this stuff. I think that learning science is a form of really engaged play, and I think that learning science and doing science both take on that kind of playfulness. This isn’t to say that it’s easy. It’s hard. Really hard. So, when people come to a class like this and say that they’re intimidated by science or that they’re scared of this class, I can think of a million reasons why this could be the case. I’d like to remove a lot of those reasons, but I’m happy to honor the fact that it’s challenging —just like baking a good loaf of sourdough or playing a violin concerto or teaching fourth grade. That’s what the course is all about. We’ll untangle explanations about the natural world and look for the simple rules, and in the process we’ll figure out how this is done by everyone from particle physicists to 5-year-olds.

journals and wonders

Where do we start to do science? I think this is a good question because it is one of those that seems like it should have an obvious, maybe trivial answer. There’s this presumption that “science is nothing more than a refinement of every day thinking,” as Einstein is frequently quoted with saying. But, even as you continue to read more Einstein and other science thinkers, it’s clear that it’s not just an extension of the kind of thinking we may be used to doing, but some kind of thinking and doing that we’ve invented. Sure, we can all do it, but we have to work at it. This is why we have science classes, after all, and why I have a job.

There’s another even more important consideration, though. We don’t just think about and create science out of nothing. We have to have something to wonder about. There has to be a natural world to observe, and we have to do that observation. That’s where we employ the most important scientific tool in this history of humankind: the pencil. Of course, along with the pencil (or any other writing tool) comes paper. But the essence of it all is that we have to start making observations and making sense of them in a way that we can share the ideas with others and maybe even start to see the ideas laid out in front of us, letting them take on a new light.

I encourage you to have a notebook that’s dedicated to observations and making sense of the world. In fact, it’s likely that you’re taking a course from me that requires a dedicated notebook for the class. I like to carry a small journal or notebook around with me to make sense of the world, and recently I’ve been inspired by seeing how an artist, Lynda Barry, uses a composition notebook to craft, teach, and document her classes. Here’s her product next to my own composition notebook:

Adam’s and Lynda’s notebooks, side by side.

Lynda is an artist, and she sees the world and makes sense of it through an artist’s lens:

A sample of Lynda’s course pages, incorporated into her notebook.

But I don’t think that this means that the concept and tool is only for the artist. In my own notebooks, I’ve started to use the space of the page not only to record something I don’t want to forget, but to start to work through the idea. Based on the idea of a friend of mine, Andy Gilbert, I’ve had some teachers I work with promote these as “Wonder Journals” for themselves and with their elementary students. It’s not just a record, but a place to start to create questions and even to see new things.

My own wonder journal for the course, next to Lynda’s composition notebook as well as my own everyday notebook.

Your first step: Get yourself your own, dedicated notebook. I got a relatively fancy one with thick paper and “quad ruled” squares on it so that I could write in different directions as well as make graphs and other sketches. This cost me about $3.50 at the bookstore, but with options to spend even less or much more. It doesn’t matter — whatever suits you and your style and workflow. Then, start breaking it in. Put your name on it, crack the spine a little, and see how the pencil or pen feels on the page. Go ahead and write in it as you start to see and wonder things, but rest assured that we’ll start filling things in with vigor starting on our first day of class.