Whether we’re conscious of it or not, our study of physics defines what drives the world around us. For some, it’s only spared a passing thought. For others, its pull is a force as strong as gravity itself.

horseshoe magnet on graph paper with iron filings and a compass

It has been for Professor Kevin Graham, who found his path in physics from an early age and was rooted in it for good.

“I think, probably a little atypically, there were lots of little things that I was exposed to or had the opportunity to see. My parents took me to the science museums and science centers like the ones in Toronto and other places, and gradually between the ages of six and nine I developed an interest in the workings of the world described by physics in particular.”

After an completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario in applied mathematics­­, and a Masters and PhD in experimental physics at the University of Victoria, Graham accepted a research associate position at Queens University in 2001 and began contributing to the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory project – spearheading a paper that analyzed the second phase of the project. The SNO project helped to prove John Bahcall’s theoretical model of the sun due to their discovery of neutrinos having mass as a cause of their change in flavor, and won the Nobel Prize for the project lead and all the collaborators.

After spending five years at Queens, Graham came to Carleton for a professorship, and began teaching. Recently, he’s developed two new online courses working in partnership with Professor Tong Xu, Professor Peter Watson, and the Educational Development Center course designers: PHYS 1905 Physics in Everyday Life offered in the fall and PHYS 2903 Physics Towards the Future offered in the winter. These courses are aimed at the “telling of the physics story and teaching physics by getting into real world things,” and arose out of Graham, Xu, and Watson’s creations of the Open Physics Education Modules – free instructional materials available to anyone wishing to teach physics to non-science majors supported by a grant from the Ontario government.

Between the two courses Graham and Xu teach there are eleven modules “connected to everyday life objects or interactions that people would have,” and their goal is to explain them from the point of view of physics: sports, sound and music, home electricity, light and colour, green energy, medical physics, the galaxy and beyond, and recent advances in physics.

Graham said he and Xu spent quite some time contemplating what the ideal type of student to take this course would be, and ultimately decided they’d like to instruct “anyone interested in physics, especially trying to understand their everyday life through the lens of physics that just hasn’t had a chance to do that in a previous course or on their own.”

Once completing the course, Graham hopes students will walk away with an appreciation for physics and the how science’s role has impacted our lives in the 21st century. “There’s a lot of negative press with respect to science and its impact on society. On the one hand both scientists and people in general need to think about how science affects the world we live in; at the same time science is the key tool, physics as one of the parts of it, that has transformed our lives.”

“And I really believe that for the most part people’s lives are far, far better on average than 200 years ago, 500 years ago because of all that scientific progress.”

By Matthew Curtis, Fourth-Year Journalism, Carleton

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