Physics doesn't have to be boring and a new site on the World Wide Web featuring cartoon characters and action-filled experiments aims to prove it.
The site was developed by physics professors at the University of Colorado at Boulder and is intended for non-scientists and students of all ages. It allows users to conduct more than 30 interactive "virtual experiments" on their computer screens and then get an explanation of what they are seeing.
"You'll see that you can do things with the Web that you can't do with a textbook," said Professor Martin Goldman, director of the Physics 2000 Project. He got the idea to create the site as a way to change negative attitudes about physics.
"The general public has long regarded the subject of physics as incomprehensible, inaccessible, stuffy, fearsome or all of these," Goldman said. The Physics 2000 Project is designed to show that it can be fun and exciting.
The site is free to anyone with Internet access and can be viewed at http://www.colorado.edu/physics/2000. The site is best viewed with Netscape version 3.0 or later and a 28.8 modem or faster with at least 16 MB of available RAM.
The website is built around topics of general interest, including X-rays, microwave ovens, CAT scans and a new form of matter called Bose-Einstein condensation. Users can play with wave interference patterns, atoms, X-rays, electric force fields and trap and cool atoms to the lowest temperatures in the universe.
In exploring X-rays, for example, a user can drag a fluoroscope frame over the image of a hand and reveal the underlying bone structure. X-rays and CAT scans are then used as entry points to discuss the physics of electromagnetic radiation.
All the virtual experiments were programmed by computer expert David Rea. The experiments run on Java Applets, a type of computer code that allows users to manipulate virtual objects on the computer screen.
Other CU-Boulder professors assisting with the project are Carl Wieman, Carl Lineberger and Scott Parker, all top researchers at CU-Boulder. Physics 2000 is sponsored by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education.
Questions and explanations are provided on the website by five cartoon characters: two teenage students, two professors and an "intuitive" physicist. Each character is associated with a particular type of approach and level of difficulty.
A character called Professor Lee explains how things work, Bob Hellman explains the conceptual physics without math or technical jargon and Dr. Mahan provides the algebra. By sticking with a particular character, users can always find an appropriate level of explanation.
The website also provides the opportunity of doing "thought experiments" similar to those for which Albert Einstein is famous.
Physics 2000 is intended to appeal to today's Web-savvy students and to be a resource for physics teachers, Goldman said. The teaching units were created by CU faculty, students, programmers, artists and high school teachers.
Colorado teachers have attended special sessions on the site and provided useful feedback. Their response to the site has been highly favorable.
"We are open to ideas and we want to make it an effective resource for the whole state," he said. Goldman uses Physics 2000 in a course he teaches titled "Science, Computer Images and the Internet."
Physics 2000 was named one of the 10 coolest websites for the month of November by the Exploratorium in San Francisco and has been endorsed by the American Physical Society, a national organization of physics researchers.