Guestpost: Christoph Schiller about Motion Mountain

“Please present the free Motion Mountain Physics Text and yourself!” Sabine wrote me some time ago. I answered that I first wanted to put the new version online. That is now done; it can be downloaded at www.motionmountain.net.

For a long time I carried the dream to tell the story of physics in the way I would have liked to hear it as a student. Simple, vivid, up to date – and stimulating. I wanted to write a text that is never boring, always challenging and surprising. Even though, of course, physics states that there are no surprises in nature.

My own physics studies, in the late seventies and early eighties in Stuttgart, had left me with three main impressions. (1) Physics is very interesting. (2) Most physics books are awful, in all languages. (3) Physics teaching is often even worse than its books – and often much better. My PhD time in France and Belgium confirmed the impressions. I wanted to change at least the book part.

I started writing in 1990, and now, in 2009, with 1600 pages, 600 photos, films and illustrations, 1700 challenges and puzzles, 900 internet links, the result is slowly realizing the original vision. The subtitle “The Adventure of Physics” expresses the tone in which the text presents the topic. Now in its 22nd edition, the text is a pdf file for free download. To get an impression, here are the topics that are new
in this edition:

The new edition now explains how it is possible to plunge a bare hand into molten lead, includes a film of an oscillating quartz inside a watch, explains how it is possible to type a letter by controlling a computer with thought alone, includes a film of a solar flare, explains the fifteen ways that colours appear in rocks plants and animals, explains the connection between cats and gauge theory, adds more ways in which the human eye invents colours that are not there, includes a list of laser types and applications, includes many images of crystals, explains how physics Plotinus and christianity come together to show that the universe and god are one and the same, adds the handcuff puzzle and several other puzzles, explains how jet pilots frighten civilians with sonic superbooms produced by fighter planes, presents the most beautiful and precise sundial available today, adds a simple photographic proof that the Earth is larger than the Moon, improves the presentation of elementary particle physics, adds a photo of a red rainbow, gives the latest discoveries on the Galileo trial, presents a fascinating mathematical aspect of Ohm’s law, states the hardest open math problem that you can explain to your grandmother, and much more.

The full text presents mechanics, electricity, thermodynamics, special and general relativity, quantum theory, and a bit of unification, all explored in a way that should be in the reach of an undergraduate. The structure of physics and the adventures one encounters are shown in a graphic that describes the exploration:

The idea of the text has always been to mix theory and experiment, in contrast to many courses at university. I wanted to add topics that appeal to young men and women (including sport, biological matters, medical matters, music, sex, games, machines). The idea was also to stimulate those readers that are more intellectual and those which are more practically inclined – and it should be fun and challenging to read for somebody from outside physics, for a student, and for a physics professor alike. The text now contains many self-contained stories, but also follows a narrative thread.

I always wanted to write a complement for all those texts that are write-ups of lecture notes: fewer formulae, more stories, more ideas. This probably is a result of my own experience as young boy and young man living in many countries in Europe and Asia.

There is a now a French translation of the first 560 pages (more are coming), a Spanish translation of 80 pages, with more coming, and also an Italian and a German version in the making. There is also a charitable non-profit association that finances all this, sponsored by a few donors, the largest being the Klaus Tschira Foundation. But as usual, funding is never sufficient…

The funds are used for computers, software, editors, designers, internet presence. So far, no money has been used for the writing or the content itself. And it was decided not to generate any income, neither with ads nor with other means. Job and family are limiting the total effort, of course.

The newest project is a version for the blind, which we hope to present as a first prototype in the summer. This was triggered by John Gardner from Viewplus, a blind entrepreneur and physicist.

A rewarding aspect has been that more and more professionals are providing images, references, and also corrections. I have many email exchanges with researchers and teachers all over the world who are helping to improve, correct and complete the text. For example, the sections on astronomy, on optics, on the climate, on relativity, on knots, on material science, and on animals and plants have gained much in this way. If you have a comment or suggestion, let me know. I’ll do my best to implement it in the next edition. In total, over 200 people have provided suggestions and material, and the book would not be what it is without them. They are all listed in the acknowledgements.

Several young readers have told me that they decided to study physics partly because they were inspired by this text. Therefore I hope to be able to continue the project for a few more years. There is still much to be added – my present “to do” list has 1060 open items. In the meantime, there is only one thing to say:

Enjoy the reading!

“You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.” ~ Albert Einstein

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