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PHYS 110 A: Liberal Arts Physics

Meeting Time: 
MTThF 12:30pm - 1:20pm
PAA A110
Miguel Morales

Syllabus Description:


We live in a technological world surrounded by machines of nearly magical ability. For your grandparents knowing where you were to within a mile or two required specialized equipment and training—now you just take out your phone. And if they were injured doctors used radioactive minerals and silver salts to look inside the body instead of an MRI machine. But how do GPS and MRI machines work?

It turns out that relativity and quantum mechanics have become the foundation of much of modern technological life. In this class we will explore how our modern technological world depends on relativity and quantum mechanics, and along the way we will explore the history of quantitative knowledge—how we know what we know.

Embarking on a modern physics class can be intimidating—few things trigger more fear than “a simple introduction to physics.” But to the intrepid and brave, I will make a few promises before we start:

  • No math. While the language of relativity and quantum mechanics is written using fairly advanced math, I don’t believe one has to read Japanese before you can appreciate Japanese art. Our journey will focus on the beauty and elegance of the physical world.

  • No philosophy. There has been a fascination with the ‘meaning’ of quantum mechanics and relativity, but we’ll leave that discussion for pints down at the pub. Here we will focus on what we see.

  • Everything we encounter will be experimentally verified. While some of the results might be surprising, nothing we encounter will be speculative. This is how our world works.


Grades will based on homework, quizzes, midterms (Feb 4 & Mar 3), class participation, and a final paper. There will be no final. As this is a new class, the exact division of points is TBD. In general the early part of each week will concentrate on understanding how the physical world works, with the end of the week looking at how that impacts our lives and the history of quantitative understanding. Homework will be due Saturday night each week, and extra credit on homework will always be available for creativity or extra effort. Reading load will be modest, but much of the reading will be difficult (must be read slowly). Quizzes will be assigned along with the reading assignments. 

Office hours

Miguel Morales:  Thursday 2:30-3:30 in PAB C108 (the hbar, main physics tower, left through main doors), and by appointment.

Ryan Lanzetta: Monday 2:00-3:00 in PAB C108 (hbar)


Week 1

M:  Introduction; ice breaker; Eratosthenes

T:  What time is it?  Earth rotation, sidereal, analema, solar and stellar elongation

Th:  Where am I?  Lattitude & Longitude; ancient way finding

F:  The Longitude Problem


Reading:  History of clocks, quiz

Homework:  Sun dials, etc.


Week 2

M:  Introduction to Waves. Wavelength, amplitude, speed, transverse, compression, restoring force

T:  Let there be light

Th:  Moving like a wave and hitting like a particle

F:  Electromagnetic spectrum & telescopes across the spectrum


Reading:   Chapter 1

Homework:  Double slit


Week 3


T:  Speed of light, starting with the Galilean moons, moving to measurements.

Th:  Special Relativity. Concentrate on everyone thinks they’re right. Non-additive speed.

F:  Surveying & Geodimeter





Week 4

M:  Particle Melting Pot

T:  cont.

Th:  Better clocks. Quartz, atomic, optical. Variation of earth’s spin and redefining time. UTC & atomic time.






Week 5

M:  Review & catchup

T:  Midterm 1 (Feb. 4th)

Th:  History of computation. Abacus, mechanical calculators, looms, people (evening field trip to computer museum)

F: Computers, tubes, machine language, modern developments. Theme is computers don’t understand anything, are just clever sets of switches and levers. 





Week 6

M:  World is made of notes

T:  cont.

Th:  Recording music. Music notation, player piano, records, CDs, MP3+

F:  Spectrum allocation and VNA show and tell





Week 7

M:  President’s Day

T:  Looking at the sky

Th:  cont.

F:  Big telescopes ground & space, interferometers. Extended photons





Week 8

M:  Catching Waves

T:  cont.

Th:  Make light. Incandescent, neon, CFL, LED. 

F:  Making waves. Light & gravity. (Delayed knowledge)





Week 9

M:  Review & catch up

T:  Midterm 2 (March 3rd)

Th:  Quantum Spooks

F:  cont.





Week 10

M:  Power generation:  livestock, water… to superconductors 

T:  Medical imaging. Cameras to MRI

Th:  Quantum Electronics to CMB

F:  LIGO & gravitational waves



Homework:  Diagram (or art, music, etc.) the threads of the class and how the intertwine. What you found the most interesting.




Most accommodation requests will be handled through Disability Resources for Students, including special testing requests on the midterms. 

Washington state law requires that UW develop a policy for accommodation of student absences or significant hardship due to reasons of faith or conscience, or for organized religious activities. The UW’s policy, including more information about how to request an accommodation, is available at Religious Accommodations Policy ( Accommodations must be requested within the first two weeks of this course using the Religious Accommodations Request form (

Catalog Description: 
Physics for students in the arts, humanities and social sciences. Students get a flavor of what physics is about, including scientific procedures. We will focus on the theory of Relativity. This revolutionized physics in 1905 and led to amazing predictions, like the existence of black holes and the production of gravitational waves, confirmed in 2016. Only math at high school level is required. Offered: WSp.
GE Requirements: 
Natural World (NW)
Quantitative and Symbolic Reasoning (QSR)
Section Type: 
Last updated: 
October 25, 2019 - 9:31pm