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Ask the Professional: Dr. Michael Weber

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Dr. Michael Weber has been teaching physics at BYU-Hawaii since 1999. He is the father of three children and has five grandchildren. He earned a bachelor’s in physics at BYU in Provo and a master’s and doctorate in physics from the University of Michigan. He enjoys cycling and cycled across the U.S. mainland in 2010. He said he has twice. completed each of the three introductory Greek courses at BYUH.

What is physics?

“Physics explains how the universe works. It explains how the climate works, or how an MRI works. All the high-tech stuff in medicine is all physics. Physics is an experimental science. That means if you have some theoretical physicist who comes up with this brilliant idea, people won’t take it seriously until the findings are verified experimentally. If the idea is not verified, the theory is either discarded or revised. Typically, ideas are written in terms of mathematics. Math is the language of physics."

When did the study of physics start?

“Modern physics really starts in the late 1800s to early 1900s. Before that, we had classical physics. Everything agreed with common sense like common experience. For example, if you had a ball on the ground and you kick it, you’re exerting a force on it and the ball will accelerate: Newton’s law of motion.”

How is quantum mechanics important to people?

“Quantum mechanics led to electronics. If we didn’t understand quantum mechanics, we wouldn’t have modern electronics, no computers, cell phones, etc. Can you imagine that? In order to make discoveries, you have to know the basic science. If people didn’t know this, do you think there would be medical discoveries? No. Once this is understood, then some other genius can figure out how to use it to bless mankind. That’s why many governments spend so much money on basic research.”

What made you want to study science?

“In high school, we did these labs. I thought it was very interesting to predict how something was going to act. I think that’s what grabbed me, initially.”

Do you have any advice for students who study science?

“Sometimes we have students who want to go to medical school. They don’t realize physics is incredibly important to medical school. In second semester physics, we look at a circuit with wires and different electric components. I hear students say, ‘Why are we learning this? I don’t want to be an electric engineer.’ Then, I get letters from the same students who go onto medical school. They write to me, ‘The same theories and methods we used to analyzed circuits, we use to analyze blood flows through the body.’ Physics is not easy.”

How can students begin physics?

“We have a class, Physics 100. It’s conceptual with almost no math. All we do in the first half of the class is classical physics - like Newton’s laws on gravity - basic stuff. The next half of the class is quantum physics. Cool stuff. No math. I love teaching this class.”

Any other examples of using physics in other areas of life?

“Astronomy is applied physics. I teach astronomy sometimes. When I do, on the first day, I write on the board, ‘Welcome to Applied Physics 104’ and I come about five minutes late. The students would be confused. Finally, someone would be brave and say, “Brother Weber, I thought this was astronomy.” I would say, ‘Well yeah. Astronomy is applied physics.’

"I wanted them to understand. Some students come to class wanting to memorize constellations. Astronomy is about how stars, planets, and galaxies are formed.

"That’s physics. Light: Is it made of particles or waves? People proved light was a wave. Yet, you need to have a medium to disturb the wave. Like with a water wave, water is the medium. With sound, air is the medium. But for light? Scientists couldn’t figure it out.

"Einstein has a great ability to look outside the box. He studied light, electricity and magnetism. He came up with the theory of relativity. He said, ‘Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Let’s say we have a rocket and it’s going 99 percent the speed of light. Let’s also say the rocket has a headlight. What is the speed of the light coming from the head light? The speed of light or 186,000 miles per second. Time is relative.”

What can students do for a career in science?

“If students want a career in science, most of the time they need to learn math. I wish I could go to all the high schools in the world and tell the students to learn math. This is the first semester of having an algebra-based physics class. We have always had calculus- based physics. If you know calculus, physics is much easier.”

What is relativity?

“There was a theory that explained electricity and magnetism. It was a mathematical theory because you could explain and make predictions. There are some problems with theory.Think of an electron. It’s a particle. Now think of a wave, like a wave on water. A wave is a disturbance of something, like dropping a pebble in a fish tank. The water isn’t moving from one spot to another.

"Interference: Waves move up and down. Half way up or down is called a wave interfering. Waves go through each other. Sound waves go through each other. Particles also act like waves. It’s true and there is data behind it. This is an example of how modern physics disagrees with common sense. Particles and waves are completely different things yet they act the same."

Can you explain any interesting experiments?

“The twin paradox: This is imaginary, but let’s say there are twins. One of them wants to go on a spaceship that goes almost the speed of light. Let’s say this twin wants to go for a year. Let’s also say they’re 35 when they leave. One will stay on Earth and the other leaves. After she returns, how old will she be? Common sense: 36.

"According to the girl who went to space, she will come back one year later. She will be 36 years old but her twin might be 70 or 80 years old. When you go nearly at the speed of light, your time slows down.We have done this experiment with clocks, atomic clocks, the most precise kind there is.

"Years ago they did this experiment where they got two identical clocks. One was left on Earth and the other was put on a jet. They flew around for a while. When the plane came back, common sense would say the clocks would have the same time, but they didn’t. Just like what the theory of relativity, time is not absolute. It’s relative. If they didn’t use relativity, it wouldn’t work. It would completely fail after a few minutes. Everything uses GPS.”