Sarah Reeves ’18, Aaron Balleisen ’21, and Maxwell McPherson ’19 in a lab session on energy use and energy flow as specialist/lecturer Jason Puchalla looks on.
Frank Wojciechowski
Class Close-Up: Physics for Future Leaders

Teachers Professor Peter Meyers and specialist/lecturer Jason Puchalla

Focus In this introductory physics course for non-science majors, students learn a mix of physics concepts, most of which have ties to current concerns such as nuclear weapons, energy conservation, hybrid cars, quantum computing, climate change, and radioactivity. Through demonstrations and an optional lab component, hands-on learning is encouraged. 

“Physics for Future Leaders is emphasizing not ‘physics for its own interesting sake,’ but physics as a way of approaching the modern world,” Meyers said. 

Background This class evolved from “Physics for Poets,” the nickname given to an introductory physics course taught at Princeton for many years. At one time, the course’s content was similar to a standard high school physics class, but it has been altered several times and for the past 10 years has focused “more on things that are arguably more interesting and that would come up for any engaged citizen,” he said.

On the syllabus Swedish professor Hans Rosling’s TED Talk about the arrival of the “magic” washing machine; a letter that Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1939 about the possibility of a nuclear weapon; Richard Feynman *42’s lecture on “What Is Energy?”

The power of demonstrations “We understand that almost everybody is taking this course because it’s a distribution requirement ... so it’s up to us to try to interest them. Gigantic sparks, things exploding, things falling large distances — the demos are memorable, and it’s our responsibility to turn that into [something] also educationally worthwhile,” Meyers said. 

Local connections “We have a Van de Graaff generator, which people may have seen in science museums — it generates very large voltages and big sparks,” Meyers said. “One of our Van de Graaffs actually belonged to [Robert J. Van de Graaff]; he was on the faculty here. ... And I have a plant that my wife got from some women at the Institute for Advanced Study, and the story is that it is from Einstein’s begonia. I bring it to exams.”