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In Praise of Simple Physics: The Science and Mathematics behind Everyday Questions

In Praise of Simple Physics: The Science and Mathematics behind Everyday Questions

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In Praise of Simple Physics: The Science and Mathematics behind Everyday Questions

5/5 (1 rating)
367 pages
4 hours
May 24, 2016


Fun puzzles that use physics to explore the wonders of everyday life

Physics can explain many of the things that we commonly encounter. It can tell us why the night is dark, what causes the tides, and even how best to catch a baseball. With In Praise of Simple Physics, popular math and science writer Paul Nahin presents a plethora of situations that explore the science and math behind the wonders of everyday life. Roaming through a diverse range of puzzles, he illustrates how physics shows us ways to wring more energy from renewable sources, to measure the gravity in our car garages, to figure out which of three light switches in the basement controls the light bulb in the attic, and much, much more.

How fast can you travel from London to Paris? How do scientists calculate the energy of an atomic bomb explosion? How do you kick a football so it stays in the air and goes a long way downfield? Nahin begins with simpler problems and progresses to more challenging questions, and his entertaining, accessible, and scientifically and mathematically informed explanations are all punctuated by his trademark humor. Readers are presumed to have some background in beginning differential and integral calculus. Whether you simply have a personal interest in physics' influence in the world or you're an engineering and science student who wants to gain more physics know-how, this book has an intriguing scenario for you.

In Praise of Simple Physics proves that if we look carefully at the world around us, physics has answers for the most astonishing day-to-day occurrences.

May 24, 2016

About the author

Paul J. Nahin is professor emeritus of electrical engineering at the University of New Hampshire. He is the best-selling author of many popular-math books, including Duelling Idiots and Other Probability Puzzlers, The Logician and the Engineer, Number-Crunching, Mrs. Perkins's Electric Quilt, and An Imaginary Tale (all Princeton).

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Inside the book

Top quotes

  • An even more outrageous abuse of logic is the belief that if one soldier can dig a foxhole in 30 minutes, then 1,800 soldiers can dig a foxhole in one second!

Book Preview

In Praise of Simple Physics - Paul J. Nahin


1. How’s Your Math?

What would life be without arithmetic, but a scene of horrors?

Sydney Smith¹ (in a letter dated July 22, 1835)

In this opening chapter I’ll discuss several examples of the kind of mathematics we’ll encounter in simple physics questions that may (or anyway could) occur in ordinary life. These are questions whose intent, I think, anybody can understand but that require at least some analytical thinking to answer. The math examples are very different from one another, with their only unifying (if I may use that word) feature being a progressively increasing sophistication. The central question to ask yourself as you read each example is, do I follow the arguments? If you can say yes, even if you can’t initially work through the detailed analysis yourself, then your understanding is sufficient for the book.

Example 1

Our first example of analytical thinking requires no formal math but, rather, logic and a bit of everyday knowledge (lit lightbulbs get hot). Think about it as you work through the rest of the examples, and, as with the wind-and-airplane problem at the end of the preface, I’ll give you the answer at the end of the chapter.

Imagine that you are in a multistory house with three electrical switches in the basement and a 100-watt lightbulb in the attic. All three switches have two positions, labeled ON and OFF, but only one of the switches controls the lightbulb. You don’t know which one. All three switches are initially OFF. One way to determine the controlling switch is with the following obvious procedure: Flip any one of the switches to ON, and then go up to the attic to see if the bulb is lit. If it is, you are done. If it isn’t, go back to the basement, turn one of the other OFF switches to ON, and then go back up to the attic to see if the bulb is lit. If it is, then the switch you just turned ON controls the bulb. If the bulb is not lit, then the switch that has never been ON controls the bulb. So, you can obviously figure out which switch controls the lightbulb with at most two trips to the

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