the physicist

Volume III of the Ask the Physicist books

I am pleased to announce the publication of the third volume of the Ask the Physicist series of books based on Q&As originally published on the site. This third volume, PHYSICS IS..., The Physicist Explores Attributes of Physics, is  based on Q&As submitted to www.AskThePhysicist.com. As in the first two books, this book is aimed at the layperson who wishes to understand physics without excessive mathematics and formalism. The first two books covered areas of physics—Newtonian mechanics, special relativity, electromagnetism and light, quantum physics, nuclear physics, etc. I decided to structure this new book differently, creating chapters exploring the attributes of physics: Physics Is PracticalPhysics Is BeautifulPhysics Is SurprisingPhysics Is CoolPhysics Is Frivolous, and Physics Isn't... The book may be purchased online at Morgan & Claypool (publishers of the book) or Amazon. A digital version for eReaders (epub format) is also available at Morgan & Claypool and a Kindle version is available at Amazon.


I am The Physicist! Since 2006 I have run a web site, www.AskThePhysicist.com, where I answer questions about physics. The site is not intended for answering highly technical questions; rather the purpose is to answer, with as little mathematics and formalism as possible, questions from intelligent and curious lay persons. For several years before my retirement from the University of Georgia I ran a similar Q&A site for the Department of Physics and Astronomy there. Over the last dozen years I have answered nearly 6000 questions on line and uncounted more by brief email replies. I have found this very rewarding because it is an extension of my more than 40 years experience teaching and because I learn something new almost every day. The questions I receive reveal what aspects of physics interest people and what principles they do not grasp. They reveal a wide-spread thirst to understand how physics describes, on many levels, how our universe works. It is gratifying that the site has on the order of 50-100,000 visits per month, far more than the number of questions asked; I interpret this to mean that there are many visits by people who simply like to read and learn.

This is the third book of the Ask The Physicist series. The first book in the series, From Newton to Einstein, Ask the Physicist about mechanics and relativity, focused on classical mechanics and relativity. The second book, Atoms and Photons and Quanta, Oh My! Ask the Physicist about atomic, nuclear, and quantum physics, focused on topics in modern physics. The first two books were written such that the structure was mainly in chapters covering areas of physics—Newtonian mechanics, special relativity, electromagnetism and light, quantum physics, nuclear physics, etc. Furthermore, there was an objective to explicate the topics, explain and “teach” as well as to illustrate the topics with selected Q&As. When embarking on this third book, I felt that well was dry—a new structure was needed. I decided to structure the book around chapters exploring the attributes of physics—practical, beautiful, surprising, cool, frivolous. The first two books have chapters categorized by nouns, this book has chapters categorized by adjectives. Also, since I had done my “teaching” in the first two books, there is less explication in the third book; so, if you are not familiar with the fundamentals of physics (say, high school level physics) you might find this book less accessible than the first two. To address this, Appendices from From Newton to Einstein have been included in this book; Appendix E is the introduction to Newtonian mechanics from Chapter 1 of that book. If you have read the first two, or even one of them, you should be well prepared for this book. And it is structured in such a way that there is nothing to prevent you from skipping over material you find a little hard or uninteresting.

For those of you familiar with the first two books, be assured that a chapter with "silly stuff" is also included in the third volume. To those new to the series, I like to include a chapter with a few examples of questions from people who think I am a psychic and from crackpots who think they have the most brilliant theory ever of the universe, just for a little levity.

This book is designed for a layperson, mostly heavy on "concepts" rather than "formalism", but I strive to keep the physics correct and not "watered down". Learn, enjoy, and have fun!


1. Physics is Practical

1.1. Introduction

1.2. Sports

1.3. Around the house

1.4. How does this thing work?

2. Physics is Beautiful

2.1 Introduction

2.2 The beauty of electromagnetism

2.3 The beauty of relativity theory

2.4 The beauty of gravitational theory

2.5 Concluding thoughts on beauty

3. Physics is Surprising

3.1 Introduction

3.2 Surprises of special relativity

3.3 Surprises of general relativity

3.4 Surprises of quantum mechanics

4. Physics is Cool

4.1 Introduction

4.2.Cool stuff

5. Physics is Frivolous

5.1 Introduction

5.2 Frivolous physics

6. Physics Isn’t…

6.1 Introduction

6.2 Physics isn’t psychics

6.3 Physics isn’t crazy

Appendix A

The Constants of Electricity and Magnetism

Appendix B

A Simplified Derivation of the Speed of Light from Maxwell’s Equations

Appendix C

Galilean and Lorentz Transformations

Appendix D

Gravitational Field of a Cylinder

Appendix E

Newtonian Mechanics

Appendix F


Appendix G


Appendix H

Rotational Physics