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Of space, time, and flag-waving goatherds
Learning the laws of physics from the belly of a Humvee can be an 'otherworldly' experience for a knowledge-hungry serviceman

| 31 October 2007

Professor Richard Muller has taught his popular course "Physics for Future Presidents" since 2000, relating important concepts in physics to global events and issues. As webcasts and podcasts of Physics 10 have become available online - on webcast.berkeley.edu, iTunes, Google Video, and now YouTube - he realized he was reaching far more minds each semester than the 500 potential Commanders-in-Chief in his Pimentel lecture hall. At least in theory.

At a session in March 2006, Muller put the question to his students in cyberspace: "From Walla Walla to Timbuktu," if you're watching or listening, send word.


Physics professor Richard Muller's popular course for non-majors, "Physics for Future Presidents," is among a number of lecture webcasts and podcasts seen and heard worldwide. (Peg Skorpinski photo)
 

The first e-mail response came from Kansas City, Mo. It's been followed by hundreds of other messages - at latest count from 72 countries and from 48 of the 50 states (South Dakota and Arkansas, where are you?). "I was just listening to your first of three lectures titled 'Quantum,'" wrote an NGO worker stationed in Bamako, Mali. "Consider yourself contacted from Timbuktu. I plan to be there later this month, and I assure you I will have your lecture playing on my MP3 player as I plod away by camel."

Some wrote from war zones. A U.S. Marine who had just completed three tours of duty wrote to say that while based at Camp Habbaniyah, in central Iraq, he had "listened to just about every 'Physics for Future Presidents.' If you ever see Alex Filippenko or Joshua Bloom" - two Berkeley astronomers whose lectures are available online -  "tell them I loved their lectures, too," he added.

Another arrived with the subject line "Thank you from a grateful sailor in Iraq." The author was John David Shelton, a member of a Navy counter-IED (improvised explosive device) roadside task force, who wrote to say that the "Physics for Future Presidents" lectures "have been a lifeline for me."

Shelton, now a chief petty officer at the Pensacola Naval Air Station, where he instructs helicopter and aircraft crews, elaborated on his sentiments in response to a NewsCenter request. After explaining how he downloaded the physics series to his iPod before leaving for Iraq, he went on:

"My experiences listening to his lectures over there were, for lack of a better word, otherworldly. We would often ride patrols between Baghdad and Ramadi, and I would listen to his lectures in one ear and the Humvee com system in the other....

"[I]magine this scene: I haven't showered in over 36 hours, temperatures are hitting near 110 degrees, I'm as filthy as I can ever remember being because of the blowing dust, a goatherder and his family tending their goats pass by our vehicle - once in the morning and once during the evening going in the other direction, each time waving a white flag to make sure they aren't accidentally shot - and I've got physics going in one of my ears....

"It's impossible for me to pin down exactly what I learned listening to [Muller's] lectures. Some of it I already knew, some of it clarified concepts I was vague on previously, but a good portion of it was completely new, and it was all enjoyable. Professor Muller calls his course 'Physics for Future Presidents,' I assume in order to grab the attention of undergrads signing up for their requisite science course. But I feel a more appropriate title would be 'Physics for Useful Citizens.' What he teaches is, to me and I'm sure to him, too, the basics needed to be an informed, critical- thinking citizen of our country...."

Muller, who calls Shelton's missive "one of the most rewarding letters I've ever received," works hard to make his presentations on matter, motion, space, and time engaging and relevant.

"People make fun of Internet education," he observes. "But I'm in the thick of it and am seeing the response around the world....[These people] don't get course credit, but they're doing it anyway - and to me that makes them among my best students. They really want to learn."

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The foregoing is adapted from a UC Berkeley NewsCenter
article (newscenter.berkeley.edu/goto/mullercast) that includes links to webcast and podcast Berkeley lectures on Youtube, iTunes, and the campus's own webcast.berkeley.edu site.

Muller's book Physics for Future Presidents, intended for a general readership, will be published by Norton early next year.