Wednesday, November 2, 2022

Order and Disorder: The Forces that Drive the Universe

I was late to the Jim Al-Khalili party, so I'm working through the back catalog, scrambling to catch up. So far, I've authored question sets for Atom, Chemistry: A Volatile History, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, Gravity and Me, The Secrets of Quantum Physics, and Secrets of Size: Atoms to Supergalaxies.

I still have a few Al-Khalili gems to mine. For now, I'm adding this volume to my library.

In which Al-Khalili spins a thread that carries us from ancient Mesopotamia through

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Ladder to the Stars

My first course in physics was Project Physics, Harvard's post-Sputnik curriculum project that emphasized  the history of physics and human interest throughout the course. I loved Project Physics. And on Sunday, September 28, 1980, Carl Sagan's Cosmos: A Personal Voyage episode 1, "The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean" aired for the first time. Cosmos grabbed me and did not let go.

I eventually became a high school physics teacher (the only career choice I specifically eliminated from my constellation of options while still in high school). And when California's state-mandated physics testing and reporting ended in the 2010s, I decided to weave Cosmos into my physics curriculum. 

By then, I had been implementing Skepticism in the Classroom, stand-alone lessons that could be dropped into the physics curriculum where appropriate. One theme of Cosmos was skepticism, so it aligned with my agenda. I wrote up question sets for each episode, and showed one episode the day after each unit test. I had to up the pace at the end of the year, and I showed episode 13, "Who Speak for Earth?" without a question set. Students were ready by then and remained engaged; it was like lifting hands off the moving bicycle's handlebars.

When Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey debuted in 2014, I added that series to my AP Physics 2 curriculum. AP Physics 1 got no Cosmos. But they did learn about waves and circuits back in those days.

In 1980's Cosmos, an existential threat that Sagan was overtly warning about was the nuclear arms race and the possibility of a life on Earth-ending nuclear war. In 2014's Cosmos, an existential threat that Ann Druyan (through Neil deGrasse Tyson) warned about was anthropogenic climate change.

The first episode of Cosmos: Possible Worlds aired on March 9, 2020. Four days later, I taught the last regular, in-person class of my 35-year high school teaching career. Druyan's third season of Cosmos got lost in the pandemic. And National Geographic made the series difficult to find and watch (especially for those dozen or two of us that don't subscribe to cable or have a dish).

Developing question sets for each episode of Possible Worlds has been on my to-do list since 2020. Forty-two years after the debut of Cosmos, I have begun my work on Possible Worlds

All seasons of Cosmos bring context and humanity to the work done in science. I think it's a valuable resource to fold into course curriculum. It is not tightly-focused content exposition, as one might find in The Mechanical Universe. But that's a feature, not a bug.

One down; 12 to go before I have a full set for Possible Worlds (Cosmos season 3). In the meantime, question sets for seasons 1 and 2 are available at The Lessons of Phyz. 

Will there be a season 4 of Cosmos? Ann Druyan has one envisioned. Time will tell.

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Ultimate Space Telescope

Cue the Boston "It's been such a long time". But we have arrived at the moment when the James Webb Space Telescope has enough air underneath it to merit an episode of NOVA that includes images.

Delay after delay and budget overruns aplenty made us wonder if this beast was ever going to launch. And when it finally did launch, the reality of its 300+ single points of potential mission failure made us wonder if we were ever going to see images.

Spoiler alert: JWST had a successful launch and deployment. And those images!

So here we are: Chapter 1 is complete and the story can be told about what is now the ultimate space telescope. You and I may know the back story and drama, but our students do not. This hour-long introduction brings them up to speed with the details of this ambitious research tool. If Hubble is an indicator, JWST may become the most productive research instrument we have ever built.

Those chapters have yet to be written. This chapter is about how we got here.

Monday, September 12, 2022

Earth Science: The Bundles

NOVA: Secrets of the Psychics · NOVA: Longitude—Lost at Sea · BBC: Water | Water World · National Geographic: Earth Under Water

National Geographic: Our Atmosphere · Modern Marvels: Predicting Weather · BBC: Wind | The Skies Above

NOVA: Megastorm Aftermath · National Geographic: Before the Flood · BBC: Human Planet | The Human Era

National Geographic: Colliding Continents · BBC: Deep Earth | Beneath the Crust · NOVA: Deadliest Volcanoes · NOVA: Deadliest Earthquakes 

NOVA: Meteor Strike · NOVA: Life Beyond Earth 1. Are We Alone? · NOVA: Life Beyond Earth 2. Moons & Beyond · NOVA: Secrets of the Sun

The Universe: Life & Death of a Star · NOVA: Invisible Universe Revealed · NOVA: Alien Planets Revealed · The Universe: Alien Galaxies

After I crafted these bundles, I added many Earth Science / Astronomy lessons. For the complete list, click the link below.

Sunday, September 11, 2022

Biology lives here

As I built my Lessons of Phyz library over the years, I liked working in groovy biology content whenever I could.

As mentioned in the "Chemistry: we've got it" post below, physics teachers are spoiled with an abundance of course-covering video series. Chemistry doesn't seem to have such a thing, nor have I found one for biology.

But here's the biology-related documentaries I have found.

Thursday, September 8, 2022

Chemistry: we've got it

When I retired from classroom teaching in 2021, one project I set out upon was increasing the chemistry content on The Lessons of Phyz at Teachers Pay Teachers.

Physics teachers were fortunate enough to have David Goodstein's The Mechanical Universe (College and High School) at their disposal, to be used at their discretion. Better yet, they had Paul Hewitt's Conceptual Physics Alive!. All of these were in-depth, course-long series that covered nearly all the topics in introductory physics.

Surely there must be similarly comprehensive series in chemistry. 

Or not. Somehow the Goodsteins and Hewitts of chemistry either don't exist or have not had such good fortune in getting any comprehensive series green-lit. Talk to me, my colleagues in chemistry: what went wrong? If there's something missing from the list that follows, let me know.

What we do have is a couple of chemistry mini-series and one-offs that are delightful and work well in the chemistry curriculum. Here's what I've found so far.

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

All the Bundles of Phyz - 2022

Each Bundle of Phyz is potentially a living organism. Lessons might be modified if I think of something, and new lessons might be added at any time. But for now, this is the state of the bundles. (I was assembling them one at a time, so looking back at the bundle of 21 bundles was a little surprising.)

When you're preparing your unit on any of these topics, take a peek and see if there's a lesson you can use. Or grab the complete bundle for maximum flexibility.


Friday, June 10, 2022

Secrets of Size: Atoms to Supergalaxies

What would the universe look like if you were a billion times smaller or a billion times bigger? In this mind-bending series, Jim Al-Khalili will look at the universe across its vast range of size, ranging from the tiniest objects measuring just a few atoms, to vast structures consisting of hundreds of thousands of interconnected galaxies. Investigating these astonishing objects will reveal fundamental truths about our universe. At the end of each film, the audience will see the largest structures ever discovered in the universe and the smallest objects whose images scientists have managed to capture to date.

This series premiered on BBC Four in May, 2022. These question sets only have value if you can find and show the episodes. Until this miniseries makes it to, say, Amazon Prime via Spark or some such, you may need to be resourceful to access it. If you intend to assign it outside of class, make sure students will be able to access it.

Monday, May 30, 2022

Mirages [Lab Springboard]

This activity mixes a lab activity with a springboard lesson to explore the optics and perception of mirages and looming (inferior and superior images).

The recommended equipment is Arbor Scientific's Laser Viewing Tank.

To make this lesson work, you begin by setting up the "skinny fish tank" with water and corn syrup or sugar. Then you go through the "paper and pencil" lesson about the optics of mirages, and why they are perceived as bodies of water. Then it's time to hit the tank with the lasers to see how the index gradient causes the beam to curve. By then, the connection between curving light rays and mirages is understood.

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Understanding Rainbows [Springboard]

Second only to "Why the Sky is Blue" in ambition, I would rank this as one of the best lessons I have authored. 

With rainbows, the physics is relatively simple (once you've covered refraction and dispersion) and the geometry is simple. Putting them together? Well, this is a four-page lesson. It takes a bit of time to work out the details.

The post-lesson "extras" in the presentation are amusing rewards. The "Double Rainbow" video has mostly faded from cultural awareness among students, so it's new to them! Is the dramatic interpretation over the top? Yes it is.
Student document (print-friendly Google Docs file on Google Drive)
Instructional presentation (link embedded in answer key)
Answer key

Diversion into Dispersion [Lab Springboard]

This is an exploration of differential refraction: white light is dispersed into a spectrum by a prism. The activity explores the physics behind dispersion before giving a name to the phenomenon. 

Pink Floyd's classic album cover for Dark Side of the Moon is evaluated: what's right and what's wrong with the illustration? [I painted a 10' x 30' mural of Storm Thorgerson's image outside my physics classroom.]

Student document (print-friendly Google Docs file on Google Drive)
Instructional presentation (link embedded in answer key)
Answer key

Tuesday, May 24, 2022

Index of Refraction [Springboard]

Examples of vacuum, glass, and gallium phosphide are used as we define and apply the index of refraction. Ratios of speeds, wavelengths, and sines of angles are involved. Interesting graphical tangents are visited, and a numerical sample problem is included.

Student document (print-friendly Google Docs file on Google Drive)
Instructional presentation (link embedded in answer key)
Answer key

Diversion into Refraction [Lab Springboard]

This activity acts as an introduction to refraction. Prior knowledge: sound travels faster in solids (like steel) than it does in air. So what about light? Does it travel faster in transparent solids (like glass) than it does in air? Isaac Newton thought so.

We use the classic "car on carpet" model to explore the question. A toy car is rolled at an oblique angle down a ramp. There are hard surfaces, and there are carpeted surfaces. The direction of the car's path is affected by moving through the different surfaces.

Wednesday, May 11, 2022

New Electromagnetism Lessons Added

Right hand rules in high school physics do not bring me great joy. I cringed when The Physics Teacher ran a photoessay from an instructor who photographed students contorting hands during an exam. (A cursory search for this article was unsuccessful. I hope it was expunged.) 

Nevertheless, 3-D geometry cannot be avoided when studying magnetic fields and forces. In the ├śrsted's discovery lab, students develop a right hand rule relating to current and the magnetic field it produces. That was Right Hand Rule #1.

This activity relates current, external magnetic field, and magnetic force. Right Hand Rule #2.

Saturday, May 7, 2022

Picture a Scientist

I thought this needed a question set, so I wrote one. It's now the featured free resource at The Lessons of Phyz store on Teachers Pay Teachers.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

The Secrets of Quantum Physics

Professor of physics Jim Al-Khalili investigates the most accurate and yet perplexing scientific theory ever - quantum physics. The program's two episodes
stream on Amazon Prime. YouTube links have also been embedded in the text below and the titles in the student documents.

The history of and battle over quantum entanglement. Albert Einstein hated the idea that nature, at its most fundamental level, is governed by chance. Professor Jim Al-Khalili reveals how, in the 1930s, Einstein thought he'd found a fatal flaw in quantum physics because it implies that subatomic particles can communicate faster than light in defiance of the theory of relativity. Delightful bonus: "Tangled Up With You" by Eliza's Uncertainty, a perfect addition to your modern physics playlist.

Friday, April 29, 2022

Switch Wars [Design Lab]

Design Challenge:
Using only a battery, bulb, wires, and two single pole double throw switches, make a “three-way” switch. A three-way switch involves 2 two-position switches (like common light switches in houses). Either switch can be used to turn a light on or off. Such two-switch systems are often used for lights in stairways, long hallways, or for outdoor structures. Children (of varying ages) sometimes battle each other by stationing themselves at opposite switches; one tries to keep the light on while the other tries to keep it off.


Student document (print-friendly Google Docs file on Google Drive)

Answer key

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Logic Gates [Lab + Job]

When I began the patient siege of outfitting my lab at Rio Americano High School (c. 1990), I leveled up on batteries (C- and D-cells), bulbs (various incandescent flashlight "mini bulbs"), connecting wires (alligator clip "jumpers") and switches (single throw, single and double pole ceramic and copper). 

My wish/shopping list came from Paul Robinson's Conceptual Physics: A High School Program by Paul Hewitt 1/e Lab Manual. I had tagged each lab I hoped to do, then assembled a spreadsheet list of the apparatus I would need.

And as was the case with my mechanics apparatus and materials, I began developing other labs for my students to conduct with those materials.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022


Much can be made of spherical mirrors and thin lenses in the geometric optics curriculum. Here are a few.

Is the image upright or inverted? Enlarged or reduced? In "Image Characterization," students are tasked with such determinations.

In "Mirror Experience," students gaze upon their reflections in a hand-held spherical mirror at various distances and characterize their own images.

"Ray Tracing 1 and 2" are exercises in drawing principal rays to construct images in spherical mirrors.

Monday, April 25, 2022

The Fringe of Optics [PhET]

PhET's Wave Interference sim to construct the mathematical relation describing interference patterns

The modern study of light began in the late 1600s and early 1700s with Isaac Newton in England and Christiaan Huygens in the Netherlands. Newton theorized that light consisted of particles. Huygens theorized that light consisted of waves. In 1801, Thomas Young offered convincing evidence for the wave model of light when he demonstrated that light could produce an interference pattern. 

Sunday, April 17, 2022


The bundle opens with a PhET-fueled exploration of Hooke's law. "Spring to Another World" utilizes the
Masses and Springs simulation.

Then its on to a guided classroom discussion on elastic potential energy which works through a side-by-side compare and contrast with gravitational potential energy. Practice the equation developed in the springboard on a few toy gun number puzzles.

"Springs and Swings" provides a PhET-fueled introduction to simple harmonic motion, while also delving gently into Google Sheets and linearization. This one leverages Masses and Springs: Basics and Pendulum Lab.