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Featured How is physics knowledge used in everyday life?

  1. Jul 20, 2018 #1
    We all know the question: why do I need to know this? I have been thinking recently about how to add relevance to my curriculum. What I am struggling to come to grips with is how knowing physics, the topics typically taught in a high school intro course, can be useful in everyday life. I am not looking for everyday examples of physics concepts. I mean real actual examples of using Newton’s laws or momentum in real life purposefully. For example, understanding ratios from math is applied purposefully to compare grocery store prices.

    Can you think of a time when you actually used your physics knowledge in everyday life?

    Thanks,
    Bill
     
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 20, 2018 #2
    Can't answer you directly w/r/t Physics, but let me suggest a parallel response:

    Many years ago I found myself trying to explain to a student (who likely had no need or interest in the subject) why polynomials were important to her life. I came up with some lame answer--and was never really satisfied with it. Perhaps there's a real answer that I missed, but I wasn't aware of one at the time :smile:.

    I later came to the conclusion that I should have focused on this point: people need to learn how to cope when faced with doing things that are difficult... as life tends to present us with these challenges. This is important for emotional growth and confidence-building, of course. But it's also important from the standpoint of increasing someone's awareness that they might be able to do things that they wouldn't have imagined for themselves, and perhaps even like them. And from a technical standpoint, it can lead to developing the skills required for how to approach problems, break them down, etc. The latter two points tend to be dependent on some success with the first :wink:.
     
  4. Jul 20, 2018 #3

    jack action

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    If I drive at 100 km/h, I know that I will reach my destination situated at 200 km from my house in 2 hours. That's a direct application of kinematics, calculations included.
     
  5. Jul 20, 2018 #4
    jack action, that is the only example I can think of as well. Unfortunately I cannot think of other similar typical uses for the other concepts.
     
  6. Jul 20, 2018 #5
    I feel like I use physics all the time, but it's not the laws or equations, it's the approach to problem solving and critical thinking. It's a sort of checklist when I'm thinking about a situation or trying to reason through simple arguments: 1) What do I know about the situation and what is my relevant prior knowledge, 2) Can I construct a simple model to explain or reason through the situation, 3) Does my model/explanation reduce to known behavior in different limits, 4) Does my model/explanation imply anything that is obviously ridiculous and therefore wrong, 5) What are the additional implications of my model/explanation.

    Granted, I am a theoretical physicist.

    Regarding application to everyday experience, I guess it's hard to think of something. I never find myself calculating things, as you described. I think physics may be more useful, in this context, for understanding the qualitative behavior of things. I guess as an example, I once had an issue where food-waste was coming up through my shower (coffee grounds, etc.). I don't know anything about plumbing, but I reasoned that the pipe for the kitchen sink must be connected to the pipe for the shower drain. There must have been a blockage below where they meet each other and the sink, in a different room, is at a higher height than the drain (throw the notion of "potential energy" in there if you like). I knew that significant pressure could dislodge the blockage, so I tried filling the kitchen sink with water, then unplugging it to force the blockage away. I didn't want to fill the bath tub because I figured it wouldn't produce as much pressure through a LATERAL section of pipe...anyway, the sink was higher, so obviously the best choice. This strategy was moderately helpful, but we just had our landlord snake the thing in the end. Perhaps not the best example...
     
  7. Jul 20, 2018 #6
    I think it depends on what you mean by "use".

    I find that I recognize physics in action around me all the time. Moments ago I emptied used tea leaves from the strainer by inverting it and putting the strainer and leaves into motion. I stopped the strainer by hitting it on the edge of the compost bin but the leaves remained in motion and flew into the bin. (I recall making the parallel connection several years ago when stamping my foot to get snow off of it.)

    I could argue I use my knowledge of physics to moderate how fast I make turns in my car to prevent the GPS unit from sliding off the dashboard, but is more that physics lets me understand why.

    I once heard Garrison Keillor say that education is a matter of learning to love the world better. Learning physics clearly does that for me.
     
  8. Jul 21, 2018 #7

    CWatters

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    Subconsciously or unknowingly you use physics all the time. Braking for a stop sign. Hammering in a nail. Walking down the street..
     
  9. Jul 21, 2018 #8
    Well I think that what you said is brilliant and on point!
     
  10. Jul 21, 2018 #9
    I majored in physics at university, so of course my high school physics was vital, but I will try to answer more generally.

    As a programmer, I have worked on a video game. My knowledge of some physics made it easy for me to understand game physics, which is an important topic if you are trying to make your game realistic. In addition, some of the mathematics I learned specifically for physics made it easy for me to learn computer graphics. For example, in CG we use vectors and matrices. This is one of those math topics we need for physics.

    I also did some work in electronics. At university I studied electronics as part of my physics major. Naturally this helped me in the real world job. In general, I think it would be very useful for everyone to know enough about electricity and electronics to be able to understand auto electronics or home appliance electronics.

    Our everyday life does include our job. If I was a high-school physics teacher, I would emphasize the importance of basic physics in studying other subjects, which would be preparation for many types of work. Some I can think of just on the spur of the moment are: medical technology, mechanical engineering, construction, plumbing, automobile mechanics, aircraft mechanics, boat mechanics, lighting technology, air conditioning and heating, police forensics, wireless technology, cable technology, consumer appliances, and no doubt many more.

    I saw an interview tonight with someone in the nuclear industry who says there will be a growing demand for jobs in that field. This reminds me also of solar power, wind power, and perhaps other technologies. Consider also robots and drones. For those who are so inclined, how about a job in the military or the space program, involving technology? You won't get far without at least a basic knowledge of physics. Anything you learn in high school will make your advanced study that much easier.

    I would point out that there are other roads to a good job besides a four-year university, and in many fields a knowledge of basic physics is essential. I would explain the prospect of a solid high-paying job that may not require a four-year degree. We have another story today that the government is working with industry to train more students in various technical areas, because we will need the workers.

    As far as just general knowledge of the world around us, I think all basic science is important. But if I was trying to motivate students, I would focus on practical benefits, namely a good job!
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2018
  11. Jul 21, 2018 #10

    ZapperZ

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    Er... building structures all work because someone knew about classical mechanics such as Newton's laws.

    The banking of curves when you get onto a ramp is described to Newton's laws.

    You slip and fall on slippery surfaces, and I can explain that with Newton's laws.

    Going beyond mechanics, each time you use your microwave, you are using knowledge from physics. Your electronics are downright physics application.

    The applications of physics in our everyday world is too many to describe!

    Pick up the text "College Physics" by Giambattista, Richardson, and Richardson". This is a General Physics text for courses aimed at Life Science, Biology, and Pre-Med students. Every single physics topic covered in the text are accompanied with biology and bio-medical applications.

    Edit: BTW, I should have included this article by Chad Orzel "What Has Quantum Mechanics Ever Done For Us?" This would have answered several other threads that asked for the application of QM.

    Zz.
     
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2018
  12. Jul 21, 2018 #11

    jack action

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    Here's another example, maybe more qualitative, but very important nonetheless.

    When I was younger, I used to hit ketchup bottles on the bottom to help the ketchup coming out. That is the way we see everywhere, the way that looks 'cool'. I also learned about the 'other' way, where you hit your hand with the arm holding the ketchup bottle instead. I thought I looked stupid doing that and wasn't even sure what difference it would make. I often used the 'cool' way on fear to be judged, even if it didn't work very well; I just thought I was unlucky and had a stubborn bottle.

    That all changed when I learned about physics. I realized why it should work better while hitting your arm and why you are actually not helping yourself by hitting the bottom of the bottle. Now, I know that the 'weird' way is actually the 'smart' way. I 'm proud of using it and even if someone would laugh at me for using it, I can now explain with confidence why it is the right way, something I could've never done before learning physics.
     
  13. Jul 21, 2018 #12

    kuruman

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    Think of the tricks used to perform the simple task of twisting the lid off a jar. If your hands are wet, you use a towel to increase the coefficient of static friction. If that doesn't work, you hold the lid of the jar under hot running water for several minutes. The metal lid has a higher coefficient of thermal expansion than the glass mouth of the jar and the seal cracks open (it doesn't take much of a differential expansion to do the trick). Also, a jar opening tool provides a longer lever arm so you get more torque for the same force.
     
  14. Jul 22, 2018 #13

    symbolipoint

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    No sign of actually answering the topic question, after reading through the post #12. Most people do not USE Physics in everyday life, except maybe some engineers and a few programmers. It is really the other way around: Physics uses YOU in everyday life.
     
  15. Jul 22, 2018 #14

    jack action

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    The reason they don't use it is because they don't know it or don't understand it. If they did - just like engineers and programmers - they would. I shared a personal anecdote related to this on another thread about a year ago:
     
  16. Jul 22, 2018 #15
    Okay, but in fairness... there is a slight difference between the thread topic ("How is physics knowledge used in everyday life?") and the lead-in sentence:
    So some of us strayed beyond the thread topic to examine why and to whom does it matter.

    [Edit]: And actually, note that the topic asks how knowledge of physics is used.... This is even a more restrictive requirement.
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2018
  17. Jul 22, 2018 #16
    May I ask what is really driving the question, then? I tend to agree with the overall point made by @symbolipoint and @jack action that students who are highly technically inclined would be the ones most likely to intentionally--i.e. consciously--use Physics in their lives. But I would argue that they would likely do that anyway on their own. My interpretation (right or wrong) from your question was that you were trying to reach those for whom this wouldn't be the case.
     
  18. Jul 22, 2018 #17

    vela

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    Right. I think the honest answer to the question Why do I need to know this? is "You don't."

    I think it's misguided to justify the learning physics using practical applications. There's an assumption here that unless knowledge is directly applicable, it's not worth the effort of learning it. With that criterion, you could argue that almost everything you study in school is a waste of time.

    I think a good smart-ass response to someone asking "Why do I need to know this?" would be "Why do you want to remain ignorant?" Being exposed to our current understanding of how the universe works and learning how to analyze and solve problems can only help one evaluate new situations and make more-informed decisions.

    So, sure, you can get by without knowing physics, math, and science in general. But you'd be better off if you did have at least some understanding of what we've learned.
     
  19. Jul 22, 2018 #18
    I agree; that's kind of what I was driving at in post #2.

    My later responses were meant to:
    • Explain why it was easy to wander off the topic.
    • Ask which was the thread really about: the practical implications of the official "topic", or the less defined theme suggested by "why do I need to know this?".
    Sure. Again, I agree in principle. But isn't that a little harsh? Consider the context: high school classes. We're not talking about graduate students or even college students. Some students know that in 6 months they are going to begin a career as hairdressers, others know they are college-bound, others have no idea what they're going to do. It's not a homogeneous group of techies.

    The student I mentioned in that story above was in a class--one of several--that many students were taking for the 3rd time. Why? Because some genius decided that it was mandatory for all students to take higher level classes than they previously had been--so we could "compete with the Japanese". Should we require all high school students to take Physics III too? We need to be reasonable about this.
     
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2018
  20. Jul 23, 2018 #19

    PeroK

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    There are many people who know nothing of physics and manage everyday life without problems. They can drive a car, make a cup of coffee, play sports etc. without any direct knowledge of the underlying physics. Therefore, logically, a knowledge of physics is not necessary for everyday life.
     
  21. Jul 23, 2018 #20
    I think it is disingenuous to promote physics because of its everyday utility. Studies have shown that students have preconceived concepts of realities the explanations of which are usually flawed. Even after a course in physics many students who "learned" the correct explanation for the course will revert back to the preconceptions after finishing. Given that the opportunities to use physics or think about physics in one daily life is limited to remote situations and one cannot be too optimistic in thinking that the correct explanation will be accurately recalled.

    I believe that physics like other subjects must be promoted for its intellectural enrichment in particular study of relationships for the development of logical approaches to thinking. It should be offered up as a choice and honestly promoted. Most people have taken multiple courses in history, social sciences, philosophy and literature and yet do not vote in elections, read classics or even good contemprotary literature or care that much of their own well being let alone of their fellow man.
     
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