0.1 Welcome

quark structure
The Secret Lives of Protons: Two up quarks and one down quark.

One day, when I was in high school, my chemistry teacher began a lesson about subatomic particles.

“You know those electrons and protons you’ve been hearing about the last few years?” she asked.

“Yes,” we students dutifully replied.

“You know how all of your teachers have always said that they’re the smallest things we know of?”

“Definitely,” we answered.

“And you know how you’ve always been told that they’re the fundamental building blocks of matter — that it’s impossible to break them apart into component bits?”

“Of course!” we scoffed — although nervously, because already we could sense that perhaps we had been misled.

“Well,” said my teacher, “it turns out that protons are in fact made up of even smaller particles called ‘quarks’. And that’s what we’re going to learn about today.”

Needless to say, I was outraged. I felt like a kid hearing that Santa Claus doesn’t really exist. What were they going to tell me next? What other lies had I been swallowing in school? Was two plus two ever really four? Were sentences that ended with a preposition really that big of a problem?

My only way to deal with this anger was to use that semester’s Independent Study project to learn as much as I could about the hidden world of particle physics. What I discovered was amazing. There is a whole zoo of ‘fundamental’ particles, with all kinds of bizarre names: neutrinos and charm quarks, pions and mesons… even the legendary “God Particle” — the Higgs boson, which is still being hunted for today in the world’s largest and most expensive science experiment (the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva) and whose discovery would finally tie every force we know of into one neat package.

This was my introduction to the majesty of physics, and it was a fitting one. The power of physics lies in its secrets: deeper truths buried just beneath the surface of everyday life, revealing an entire hidden framework for understanding the universe we live in.

I studied physics in university, then got into education as a way to share my passion and torment young people with difficult math problems. I soon learned that although most people dislike math, they get very excited to learn about how things really work — in other words, the conceptual side of physics. This website is my attempt to share the awesomeness without scaring people off by bringing math into it.

Although I may scare people off with EXPLODING SUPERNOVAE
Of course, if you’re reading this and have any knowledge of physics as a discipline, you’ll see one big problem immediately: physics, at its heart, is mathematical, not conceptual. Probably the best way to define the field is as a collection of mathematical models which closely resemble our observations of reality. Often, trying to describe physical principles in words is an exercise in frustration — the Schrödinger Wave Equation, for example, is famous for engendering vague or even misleading descriptions. It’s a formula, and when you plug the numbers into it, you can make accurate numerical predictions. The language of words was never intended to describe mathematics — that’s why we had to invent math in the first place.

Nevertheless, people have been trying to figure out exactly what these formulas describe for a long time. And as long as we both remember the limitations of what we’re doing here, we can still gain access to some of the most exciting scientific discoveries ever made. We’ll talk about black holes, the Big Bang, quantum physics, and all kinds of crazy stuff.

So I invite you to stay with me. I’m certain it will be worth your time.

Next: 0.2 – Thinking Like A Physicist