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Guenther Langner Ph.D.:

"Physics and Physicists and What They Do."

This is the recap by Frank Robinson, of a presentation by Guenther Langner, at the August 13th, 2017 CDHS monthly meeting.

            

Our August speaker was Guenther Langner, a longtime CDHS member, who spent his life in science, with 47 professional publications and 17 patents in his name or with others. His talk was titled "Physics and Physicists and What They Do."

His focus was on what physics is all about, and how it developed. Of course, early humans emerged from the animal kingdom with no physics knowledge, except what they could see: like objects falling, or moving when force is applied. But they used their imagination and curiosity, finding ways to solve basic problems. Dr. Langner used as examples the lever and the wheel. Neither is actually obvious, and required thinking outside the box. The seemingly simple wheel was not so simple, and Guenther showed its development through stages, beginning with using log rollers to move heavy objects. [The Incas never did get the wheel -- FSR] The wheel was actually a great breakthrough, a way to convert rotational motion into linear motion (or vice versa), which turned out to have a lot of applications, such as the pottery wheel.

In classical Greece, there was another major discovery: reasoning. That was a good thing; however, Greeks like Aristotle thought all problems could be solved by reasoning alone. The concept of experimentation came much later. Aristotle, for example, posited that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. It seemed like common sense. (Indeed, most people today would probably still give that answer.)

A more skeptical and inquiring mentality began to emerge around the 13th century. The invention of movable-type printing in the 1450s was a great spur to the dissemination of ideas and knowledge. Copernicus figured out that the cosmos made a lot more sense with the Sun rather than Earth at the center (though he didn't have the nerve to publish till his deathbed). Then Kepler managed to figure out the laws of planetary motion (a fantastic intellectual achievement). And Galileo ascended the Tower of Pisa to finally prove Aristotle wrong about falling bodies. More, he used inclined planes to measure their rate of falling and figure out the acceleration of gravity. Such experimentation was itself a tremendous innovation.

Speaking of gravity, it was Isaac Newton who in the later 1600s really started theoretical physics. Of course people knew about gravity, but with no understanding. Newton had another idea outside the box: what if masses attract each other? That wasn't at all obvious; in fact, the force of gravity is by far the weakest of the fundamental forces, virtually invisible at small scales. And Newton invented the calculus to do the math on the law of gravity. It was that math that confirmed and explained the planetary laws that Kepler had postulated. Wow.

All this is what Guenther called "classical physics," dealing basically with phenomena we can see. "Modern physics" goes further and deeper into what we cannot see -- at least not without some heavy duty visual aids -- and beyond even that.

Anyhow, long story short, one thing led to another, and today we have in our pockets devices that enable us to access almost all human knowledge. Which we mostly use to look at cat videos.

 


 

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