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College Row

Thinking About Physics cartoon
The first of four panels for one of
Prof. Bob Romer's physics posters

Physics Goes Mobile

Professor Emeritus Robert H. Romer is making the world a better place, one quantum-mechanics problem at a time.

Although he officially “retired” from Amherst in 2001, Romer’s schedule sounds suspiciously like that of a regular faculty member; still an active part of the physics department, he maintains an office in Merrill Science Center with piles of in-use books and papers stacked on nearly every table, desk and chair. And he has garnered quite a bit of attention for his latest project, “Thinking About Physics,” a series of questions for bus riders to ponder on their way to work. The panels feature cartoon animals posing various physics-related problems; they are the result of Romer’s collaboration with Professor John King of MIT and the artist Bruce Aller, and began appearing on Five College buses in early January. The one that appears above, for example, asks readers what will happen to the level of a pond if the characters take the anchor in their boat and drop it over the side; others in the series focus on why objects seen in a car’s passenger-side mirror are closer than they appear, or what would happen to a helium balloon inside a moving vehicle if the brakes are applied.

Physics is not a topic of conversation that ordinarily comes up during the morning commute; the general public, one could reasonably assume, is not well versed in fluid mechanics or calorimetry. But this is precisely the audience that Romer hopes to reach. “Physics can deal with atoms and molecules, the things we talk about in the classroom, but it can also deal with baseballs and tricycles and cars, everyday things,” he says. “That’s one of the things I hope this project helps people understand. To students like Michael Reed ’04, this is an important and much-needed endeavor. “People get turned off because they think they can’t handle the math and science involved in physics, which is a shame,” says Reed, a physics major from Tenafly, N.J. “The beauty of physics is that from simple things, you can understand all of nature.”

The bus panels are just the first phase of an idea Romer calls “Physics Everywhere”—an attempt to make it a part of life, even from a very early age. He talks excitedly about an “Age Zero Physics Kit,” complete with plastic screws that infants could fit together as a kind of early rotational dynamics lesson. For the school-age set, he envisions playgrounds with race paths on which children could create patterns of blinking lights and measure their own speed in meters per second.

Romer says that King shares his desire to bring physics to the masses and was enthusiastic about the larger project from the very beginning. “When my friend from MIT first talked about it, he had these grand plans of all the different things we could do,” Romer says. “I said, ‘Let’s start with physics on the subway; that’s somewhere to begin in a reasonable amount of time. We can’t put this stuff in all the playgrounds of America yet, but we can start with this project.’” Questions for the six panels were complete by June 2002; Five Colleges, Inc. and the UMass transit system allowed them to be displayed free of charge, and funding for creating and printing the posters came both from Amherst College and from Romer’s and King’s own wallets. As the number of hits on their answer Website increases, they hope to procure more funding and to get the panels onto the New York and Boston subway systems.

As his audience grows, Romer hopes to give commuters something to get their brains working during the bus or subway ride, to make their days that much more interesting. Says Romer, “I’ve always thought that people thinking about physics enjoy more of life.”

See all of Romer's physics questions and answers on his "Thinking About Physics" Website

—Rebecca Louick ’04

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Illustration: Bruce Aller

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