HPS 0410 Einstein for Everyone Fall 2008

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Assignment 1. The Wild and the Wonderful

For submission Mon. Aug. 25, Tues. Aug. 26, Wed. Aug. 27.

In this class, we are going to review a series of remarkable and unexpected discoveries in science. We will find that the speed of light represents an impassable barrier; that moving clocks slow; that mass is a form of energy; that gravity is really a curvature of the geometry of spacetime; and much more.

With a master like Einstein to guide us, it looks so easy. It is as if no commonsense idea is secure. It seems as if the smallest nudge is all that is needed to topple great edifices that seemed completely secure. These discoveries are like the fictional gold that supposedly paved the streets of London. Innocents arriving in London found that wealth there was not easy to come by.

It isn't that easy. Revolutionary discoveries are exceedingly hard to find. To give you some perspective, consider:

1. Briefly, in a few sentences, describe a successful revolutionary discovery in science NOT drawn from Einstein's work. (Hint: Pick your favorite, but if you are having trouble, what did Copernicus or Darwin find?)

2. Briefly, in a few sentences, describe an UNsuccessful attempt at a revolutionary discovery. (Hint: Pick your favorite, but if you are having trouble, the word "crank" might help, as might "perpetual motion machine" and "Velikovsky.")

For discussion in the recitation:

A. How can you tell the real discovery from the phoney?

B. What attitude should you take when you hear reports of new and amazing discoveries? Should we be skeptical and thus risk discarding important discoveries? Or should we be open-minded and thus risk falling for the latest fad?

To exercise your investigative muscles, here are few ideas to consider. How should we react to reports that claim they are true? How would you test them?

• Razor blades stored inside pyramids stay sharper.
• It is possible to run a car on water as its fuel.
• Hydrogen fusion is possible on a benchtop.
• Everything is made of atoms too small to see.
• We are immersed in an immaterial ether we cannot sense.
• We are immersed in an ocean of radio waves we cannot sense.
• Our unaided minds can perceive distant events without using our ordinary senses.
• There are planets around other stars.
• There are planets just like our earth around other stars.
• If you search long enough you will find another planet that is as close as you like to being a perfect copy of our earth.
• There are alien beings living on other planets.
• We are being visited by alien beings from other planets.
• Loch Ness is inhabited by pleisosaurs who have survived from the age of the dinosaurs.
• It is possible to travel faster than light.
• It is possible to travel to other parts of the universe through space warps.
• It is possible to travel back in time.
• It is possible to travel to other parallel universes.
• Our universe is splitting into parallel universes all the time.