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Very good post.

I might add cosmology to the list. Knowing something about the universe as a system would seem to be something that a scientifically literate person should know.

Concise summaries of all of these areas should, in fact, be required reading for all of my students. The "connecting the dots" is particularly important. I try to do that in my classes. All too often we present these topics as separate concepts and don't show the introductory students how everything fits together. I don't have any topics that are just hanging there without connecting to what came before. I think that is done far too seldom in these classes.

I like the comments about "very scientific field has its own Top 10 list of fundamental concepts..". So, what are they for physics? Top 10? Heck, I would settle for the Top 5. Let's see... 1) acceleration, 2) spin.....

-Ken Abbott

Excellent post - you did a really good job of coming up with 10 things! (In particular, I was happy to see your development of 5-8, things dear to my heart).

I've wished for #4, probability and statistics, quite a few times myself. In this connection, I heartily recommend Darrell Huff's **How to Lie with Statistics**, Gonick and Smith's **Cartoon Guide to Statistics** and John Allen Paulos's **Innumeracy**. Much more could be written in this genre, both online and on tree pulp. (If you know an interested publisher, have your people call my people. . . .)

#6 seems to be coming up frequently these days, or at least I keep noticing remarks about it floating through the Blogotubes. I wrote a little about it here:

Hi Jennifer.

>1. Let's start out with the "Duh" concepts. (Oh, stop rolling your
>eyes!) I'm always surprised by how many non-scientists don't fully
>grasp the scientific method, specifically, what is a theory versus
>what is an hypothesis.

I've been thinking about alot of these sorts of things in the context of a 1 credit class for non-physics and even non-science majors that I'm teaching on 'current topics in physics'. We've picked a bunch of subjects that illustrate not only some topical physics, but also important concepts (Physics of climate change, Blacks holes, Tsnunami!, Dark energy, How to build a nuclar bomb etc.).

In the first class though, we started general and BIG with the subject "What is science?". I think there are some important concepts here that students are not typically exposed to. Think of how the public discourse would be different if some substantial segment of the population could quickly excise out of the information onslaught the shams and charlatans.

I emphasized three things:

- Science is a process, not a body of knowledge

- The concept of 'falsifiability'. There is alot of baggage usually wrapped up with this word, aka Popper and Kuhn.... which is controversial and perhaps not as relevant. But the concept that a statement has to be "potentially falsifiable" to be science, is a powerful demarcator. I hope they take this away with them.

- And finally...... 'The world is not magic'

Oh dear! Clicking on "Cosmic Variance" reveals "THIS ACCOUNT HAS BEEN SUSPENDED. Please contact the billing/support department as soon as possible." Can you get Sean to illuminate? I always enjoy your posts.

I can hear David Letterman reading your (simplified) top ten list:

10. The Whole of physics is not the hole of physics.

9. The LHC can't destroy the whole Universe - most of the Universe is past our light horizon and zipping away faster than light.

8. In order to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.

7. Even stuffing all your hot (or cold) stuff into a black hole does not violate thermodynamics.

6. A single photon (a quark) can be detected by the dark adapted eye.

5. When the number is ten to the forty second power, it doesn't matter much if it is grams or kilograms.

4. The probability that life will be spontaneously created (abiogenesis) in this Universe is at least one.

3. Everything is relative. Even your mother.

2. Scientists can perform a function in the bathroom too.

And the Number One Thing About Physics We Wish Everyone Knew: (drum roll)

1. Don't look for truth to come from The Discovery Institute.

Nicely put. As a teacher of high school students, I am amazed by how many misconceptions about the physical world get stuck in their brains by age 14. Once they are in there, it's hard to convince the students they are just plain wrong. It's an even harder task to address adults' misconceptions; they don't have to take a final exam!

I'm going to print this post out and use it as a reminder of what to cover in 9th grade physics. I'm still working on a unit that gets to the heart of what a scientific theory is. My students are still pretty hazy on that issue.

Brain farts happen. AFAIK, I think perhaps "The Cask of the Armadillo" was a Lone Ranger adventure. Or maybe it was the "The Cache of the Armadillo" ...

"laundry list" was especially helpful to me...thanks

The Large Hadron Collider [LHC] at CERN might create numerous different particles that heretofore have only been theorized. Numerous peer-reviewed science articles have been published on each of these, and if you google on the term "LHC" and then the particular particle, you will find hundreds of such articles, including:

1) Higgs boson

2) Magnetic Monopole

3) Strangelet

4) Miniature Black Hole [aka nano black hole]

In 1987 I first theorized that colliders might create miniature black holes, and expressed those concerns to a few individuals. However, Hawking's formula showed that such a miniature black hole, with a mass of under 10,000,000 a.m.u., would "evaporate" in about 1 E-23 seconds, and thus would not move from its point of creation to the walls of the vacuum chamber [taking about 1 E-11 seconds travelling at 0.9999c] in time to cannibalize matter and grow larger.

In 1999, I was uncertain whether Hawking radiation would work as he proposed. If not, and if a mini black hole were created, it could potentially be disastrous. I wrote a Letter to the Editor to Scientific American [July, 1999] about that issue, and they had Frank Wilczek, who later received a Nobel Prize for his work on quarks, write a response. In the response, Frank wrote that it was not a credible scenario to believe that minature black holes could be created.

Well, since then, numerous theorists have asserted to the contrary. Google on "LHC Black Hole" for a plethora of articles on how the LHC might create miniature black holes, which those theorists believe will be harmless because of their faith in Hawking's theory of evaporation via quantum tunneling.

The idea that rare ultra-high-energy cosmic rays striking the moon [or other astronomical body] create natural miniature black holes -- and therefore it is safe to do so in the laboratory -- ignores one very fundamental difference.

In nature, if they are created, they are travelling at about 0.9999c relative to the planet that was struck, and would for example zip through the moon in about 0.1 seconds, very neutrino-like because of their ultra-tiny Schwartzschild radius, and high speed. They would likely not interact at all, or if they did, glom on to perhaps a quark or two, barely decreasing their transit momentum.

At the LHC, however, any such novel particle created would be relatively 'at rest', and be captured by Earth's gravitational field, and would repeatedly orbit through Earth, if stable and not prone to decay. If such miniature black holes don't rapidly evaporate and are produced in copious abundance [1/second by some theories], there is a much greater probability that they will interact and grow larger, compared to what occurs in nature.

There are a host of other problems with the "cosmic ray argument" posited by those who believe it is safe to create miniature black holes. This continuous oversight of obvious flaws in reasoning certaily should give one pause to consider what other oversights might be present in the theories they seek to test.

I am not without some experience in science.

In 1975 I discovered the tracks of a novel particle on a balloon-borne cosmic ray detector. "Evidence for Detection of a Moving Magnetic Monopole", Price et al., Physical Review Letters, August 25, 1975, Volume 35, Number 8. A magnetic monopole was first theorized in 1931 by Paul A.M. Dirac, Proceedings of the Royal Society (London), Series A 133, 60 (1931), and again in Physics Review 74, 817 (1948). While some pundits claimed that the tracks represented a doubly-fragmenting normal nucleus, the data was so far removed from that possibility that it would have been only a one-in-one-billion chance, compared to a novel particle of unknown type. The data fit perfectly with a Dirac monopole.

While I would very much love to see whether we can create a magnetic monopole in a collider, ethically I cannot currently support such because of the risks involved.

For more information, go to:


Walter L. Wagner (Dr.)

I found your post really interesting and it has really improved my knowledge on the matter. You’ve assisted my understanding on the subject which is usually a hard to tackle subject, and not a lot of people can do this with the ease that you seem to. Thank you!

You’ve managed to explain a really tricky subject well. I find that I sometimes have difficulty in getting my head round topics like this, but you’ve summed it up really well. I’ve found another writer that does the same thing although don’t have the details right now.

I'm curious: How does the perpetual motion device violate so many other theories than thermodynamics and what are those theories?

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    Physics Cocktails

    • Heavy G
      The perfect pick-me-up when gravity gets you down.
      2 oz Tequila
      2 oz Triple sec
      2 oz Rose's sweetened lime juice
      7-Up or Sprite
      Mix tequila, triple sec and lime juice in a shaker and pour into a margarita glass. (Salted rim and ice are optional.) Top off with 7-Up/Sprite and let the weight of the world lift off your shoulders.
    • Listening to the Drums of Feynman
      The perfect nightcap after a long day struggling with QED equations.
      1 oz dark rum
      1/2 oz light rum
      1 oz Tia Maria
      2 oz light cream
      Crushed ice
      1/8 tsp ground nutmeg
      In a shaker half-filled with ice, combine the dark and light rum, Tia Maria, and cream. Shake well. Strain into an old fashioned glass almost filled with crushed ice. Dust with the nutmeg, and serve. Bongos optional.
    • Combustible Edison
      Electrify your friends with amazing pyrotechnics!
      2 oz brandy
      1 oz Campari
      1 oz fresh lemon juice
      Combine Campari and lemon juice in shaker filled with cracked ice. Shake and strain into chilled cocktail glass. Heat brandy in chafing dish, then ignite and pour into glass. Cocktail Go BOOM! Plus, Fire = Pretty!
    • Hiroshima Bomber
      Dr. Strangelove's drink of choice.
      3/4 Triple sec
      1/4 oz Bailey's Irish Cream
      2-3 drops Grenadine
      Fill shot glass 3/4 with Triple Sec. Layer Bailey's on top. Drop Grenadine in center of shot; it should billow up like a mushroom cloud. Remember to "duck and cover."
    • Mad Scientist
      Any mad scientist will tell you that flames make drinking more fun. What good is science if no one gets hurt?
      1 oz Midori melon liqueur
      1-1/2 oz sour mix
      1 splash soda water
      151 proof rum
      Mix melon liqueur, sour mix and soda water with ice in shaker. Shake and strain into martini glass. Top with rum and ignite. Try to take over the world.
    • Laser Beam
      Warning: may result in amplified stimulated emission.
      1 oz Southern Comfort
      1/2 oz Amaretto
      1/2 oz sloe gin
      1/2 oz vodka
      1/2 oz Triple sec
      7 oz orange juice
      Combine all liquor in a full glass of ice. Shake well. Garnish with orange and cherry. Serve to attractive target of choice.
    • Quantum Theory
      Guaranteed to collapse your wave function:
      3/4 oz Rum
      1/2 oz Strega
      1/4 oz Grand Marnier
      2 oz Pineapple juice
      Fill with Sweet and sour
      Pour rum, strega and Grand Marnier into a collins glass. Add pineapple and fill with sweet and sour. Sip until all the day's super-positioned states disappear.
    • The Black Hole
      So called because after one of these, you have already passed the event horizon of inebriation.
      1 oz. Kahlua
      1 oz. vodka
      .5 oz. Cointreau or Triple Sec
      .5 oz. dark rum
      .5 oz. Amaretto
      Pour into an old-fashioned glass over (scant) ice. Stir gently. Watch time slow.