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This Is Why…

Joanne O’Meara, Professor, Department of Physics, University of Guelph

When people think about what physicists do, they often jump directly to the esoteric, like quarks or globular clusters, and don’t necessarily see the myriad connections of physics to our everyday experiences. I’m not criticizing those among us devoted to the esoteric, but I do worry that we are missing out on inspiring and engaging with a large fraction of the science-curious by not taking the time to explore some of the fascinating physics on display in the natural world. As physicists, we are practiced at the art of asking ourselves Why? when we observe something beautiful, unusual, or unexpected, and the feeling that comes from figuring out the answer is what keeps us exploring. I love being able to bring these little explorations into my classroom, especially when I’m teaching first-year physics to biological science students, as helping them to see the relevance of what they are learning can have a profound effect on their motivation. From the beauty of a double rainbow, to penguins using bubbles to reduce drag, or the effect of polarization of scattered light on flies looking for someone/thing to bite, I love that look of wonder and appreciation on my students’ faces when we take a short tangent to extend our learning in optics or mechanics.

During the pandemic, I decided to start writing about some of these connections in an ongoing blog I call Wonder Why. Maybe you’ll find a fun anecdote here to share with the students in your classes. Sharing the amazing world of physics — from the applied to the esoteric — and sparking that natural sense of wonder and curiosity is really what our job is all about! Send me a message if you have any suggestions for future posts!

Posts so far:
Forces, torques, and static equilibrium – Geese Are Yoga Gurus
Light scattering, refraction, interference – Rainbows Have Nothing to Hide
Air convection around campfires – Campfire Smoke Follows You Around
Close-packing arrangements of atoms in molecules, geometry in nature – Snowflakes Are “Six-Cornered”
Buoyancy and floating – Whales Nap in the Upright Position
Newton’s 3rd law, conservation of momentum – Water Striders and I Are Kindred Spirits
Electrical power from photosynthesis – Microscopic but Mighty Cyanobacteria Deserve Our Respect
The effect of scattered polarized & unpolarized light on flies – Why Zebras Have Stripes
Force, impact, momentum, and concussions – It’s Good to Be Hard-Headed, if You’re a Woodpecker
Force, pressure, impact, drag – Physics Leads to Love for Western Grebes
Viscosity and forces (non-Newtonian fluids) – Snails Are Brilliant Engineers
Aerodynamics of dandelion seeds – Mother Nature Is a Physics Genius
Collisions, momentum, buoyancy – Skipping Stones Is Anything but Child’s Play
Heat convection and light reflection – Foodies Focus On Foil’s Physics
Projectile Motion – Equestrians Trust Their Lives to Physics
Freezing, nucleation, snowmaking – This Is Why It Stings When You Ski Through a Blast of Fake Snow
Fractals in nature – Romanesco Broccoli Is the Nerdiest Veg
Using air bubbles to reduce drag in water – Penguins Can Fly
Charged particles moving in magnetic fields – Auroras Are Only Found at the Poles
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