How Things Work 1

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Course Date: 11 August 2014 to 22 September 2014 (6 weeks)

Price: free

Course Summary

An introduction to physics in the context of everyday objects.

Estimated Workload: 2-4 hours/week

Course Instructors

Louis Bloomfield

Louis A. Bloomfield is Professor of Physics at the University of Virginia, where he has been teaching since 1985. Bloomfield grew up taking everything apart and, with the notable exception of one recalcitrant mechanical clock, he managed to get them all back together again (or at least that's what he remembers). He also survived numerous electrical shocks and chemical accidents in his youth, not all of which were unexpected. When he arrived at Amherst College, tinkering with things wasn't offered as a major, so he chose the closest available option: he majored in physics. Bloomfield received his B.A. in 1979 summa cum laude and his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University in 1983. He was a postdoctoral fellow at AT&T Bell Laboratories until 1985, when he joined the faculty of the University of Virginia as an Assistant Professor of Physics. He has been there ever since. Bloomfield is the recipient of numerous awards for his research in atomic, condensed matter, and optical physics, including the Apker Award of the American Physical Society, a Presidential Young Investigator Award of the National Science Foundation, a Young Investigator Award of the Office of Naval Research, and an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and he is a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

In 1991, Bloomfield decided to try teaching physics the way he originally learned physics: in the context of everyday things. He created a course called How Things Work and taught it to 92 students at the University of Virginia its first semester. He was hooked and evidently so were the students, because 261 of them took the course its second semester. Since then, Bloomfield has taught physics to nearly ten thousand non-science students at the University and received both a 1998 State of Virginia Outstanding Faculty Award and the 2001 Pegram Medal of the Southeastern Section of the American Physical Society for that teaching. His course became an innovative introductory textbook entitled How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life, 5th Edition (Wiley, 2013) and that textbook became a more comprehensive trade book entitled How Everything Works: Making Physics Out of the Ordinary (Wiley, 2008). In addition to his books, Bloomfield is the author of more than 100 publications in the fields of atomic clusters, autoionizing states, high-resolution laser spectroscopy, nonlinear optics, computer science, and general science literacy.

Bloomfield works extensively with professional societies and the media to explain physics to the general public and has appeared frequently on television and radio. He co-hosted the television series Some Assembly Required on the Discovery Channel (2007-2008) and appeared frequently in Known Universe on the National Geographic Channel (2009). He is appearing in his 5th season of "Forces of Hockey" (2010-2014) for the Washington Capitals "Caps Red Line" program and has won 3 regional Emmy awards. Although he enjoys the challenge of explaining physics on the small screen, he is well aware that he is not an actor and that he merely plays one on television.

Bloomfield's years of experimenting with everything he can get his hands on, and reading about those he can't, have made him something rare in modern day science: a generalist. More specifically, he knows enough to be dangerous in a broad swath of the physical sciences and even some of the life sciences. That background has allowed him to serve frequently as a science consultant and as an expert witness in matters that require a broad understanding of physics and scientific issues. Although Bloomfield struggles to keep his research, teaching, and service activities from consuming every available second, he has too much fun with all of them to stop.

Course Description

Designed for non-science students, this course is a practical introduction to physics and science in everyday life. It considers objects from the world around us, identifying and exploring the scientific concepts upon which they're based. Because it starts with objects and looks within them for science, it is the reverse of a traditional physics class. Instead of the usual principle-driven physics class, How Things Work is case-study physics. In this pilot semester of How Things Work, we will explore the basic laws of motion in the context of six familiar objects or activities: (1) Skating, (2) Falling Balls, (3) Ramps, (4) Seesaws, (5) Wheels, and (6) Bumper Cars. Despite their simplicity, these topics will bring us in contact with some of the most important concepts in physics, including inertia, energy, and momentum.


What must I do to earn a Statement of Accomplishment?
  • To earn a Statement of Accomplishment, you must achieve an average score of 50% on the six homework assignments. To earn a Statement of Accomplishment with Distinction, you must achieve an average score of 80%. Note that you may take those assignments as many times as you like; only your highest scores contribute to that average.
Must I complete the Preliminary and Final Assessments to earn a Statement of Accomplishment?
  • No. Those assessments are only for your own information, to see just how much you learned while taking this course.
Will I find this class interesting, enjoyable, and valuable if I am not a college student?
  • Yes. this class is truly for everyone. Previous students have ranged in age from 7 to 70+ and have come from all backgrounds and all walks of life. They have including college students, adult learners, professionals, retirees, grade-school children, home-schoolers, and even physics professors.
What background is expected for learners in this class?
  • None. The course starts at the beginning and provides a complete path toward a substantial understanding of the basics laws of motion. It is conceptual, rather than formulaic, and emphasizes understanding rather than memorization.
What resources will I need for this class?
  • Mostly a willingness to think. The material presented in the videos is all that's required to succeed in this class, however, I suggest that you obtain a copy of my textbook, How Things Work 5e, because the more ways in which you approach this material, the better you'll learn it.
I am not a native speaker of English. Are there translations?
  • Yes, the videos have subtitles in 13+ languages and many of the homework assignments have been translated as well. The initial translations were computer-generated, but volunteer translators have perfected the subtitles for many videos in many languages. You can even contribute to this translation project for languages that are still incomplete or additional languages that I haven't included yet. I'll work with you to make this class accessible to the whole world.


Episode 1 – Skating

   Inertia and why skaters coast.

Episode 2 – Falling Balls

   Weight and why balls fall after being dropped or thrown.

Episode 3 – Ramps

   Energy and why it's easier to push a piano up a ramp than to lift it up a ladder.

Episode 4 – Seesaws

   Rotation and how different children can balance a seesaw and rock it back and forth.

Episode 5 – Wheels

   Friction and how wheels deal with friction to let vehicles coast or propel them forward.

Episode 6 – Bumper Cars

   Momentum and angular momentum, and how those quantities influence the collisions between bumper cars.


The course consists of six episodes, one for each of the six objects or activities. Each episode consists of six to eight short video segments and a quiz (homework assignment), along with suggested readings in the optional textbook. All of the episodes will become available at the start of the course, but a suggested pace is one episode per week.

The first video segment in an episode introduces the episode's topic and identifies some of the physics issues that we will need to examine in order to understand how the topic works. It also poses five or six how or why questions, each of which is subsequently addressed in its own video segment. The final video segment in the episode summarizes the physics concepts encountered during the episode while explaining how the topic works.

Each of the middle video segments, those that address how or why questions, also asks you one or two questions of its own. Though technically optional, these in-video quiz questions are intended to be thought-provoking and to help you solidify your understanding of key physics concepts as we encounter them. I hope that you will answer those questions and use them to help you learn physics.

The episode's homework assignment asks you to apply the physics concepts encountered in the episode's videos (and suggested reading) to other real-world contexts. The questions are multiple-choice and rarely require calculations. In my experience, the physics concepts themselves are already challenging to learn and apply, and trying to perform calculations using their more formulaic aspects is a distraction, rather than a worthwhile activity. You may attempt each homework assignment as many times as you like. Struggling with challenging questions is one of the best ways to learn physics.

Suggested Reading

Physics is not easy and learning its concepts requires repeated exposure to them. In addition to watching the videos, I encourage you to read my textbook: How Things Work 5th Edition by Louis A Bloomfield (John Wiley & Sons, 2013). This class will cover the first two chapters of the book, with each episode corresponding to a section in one of those chapters.

You can obtain How Things Work, 5th Edition from Wiley ( or any online bookstore, including Amazon:

How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life, 5th Edition

How Things Work: The Physics of Everyday Life, 5th Edition (Kindle)

I have also created a version of this material for a general readership (not a textbook): How Everything Works by Louis A Bloomfield (John Wiley & Sons, 2008):

How Everything Works: Making Physics Out of the Ordinary

Course Workload

2-4 hours/week

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