Welcome to Physics 132 – Introduction to the Course

Hello, welcome to Physics 132 at University of Massachusetts, Amherst! This course is where we get to use the ideas from Physics 131 (forces, energy, etc.) to really understand two fundamental objects: electrons and light. These two fundamental objects are all around you. You can see this page due to light. How many electronic devices are you carrying right now? Moreover, understanding these two objects is key for understanding the physical original of biological processes. One cannot hope to understand molecular pathways within cells such as photosynthesis and neural activation without talking about electrons and light, but what are electrons? What is light? The goal of this course is to help you develop your own understanding of these questions.

How do you define what something is? Especially, as is the case for light and electrons, when the object you are trying to define is subatomic and so very far removed from our everyday experience? These are not scientific questions: we cannot design an experiment to test their answers. Thus, this physics course must, right out of the gate, go beyond physics to philosophy. Specifically, we must venture into : a branch of philosophy that explores the nature of being, existence, and reality. The word physics actually comes from a Greek word ΦIΣIK meaning “nature.” META is a Greek word meaning “beyond.” So metaphysics literally means beyond nature. In particular, to answer the question of “how do you define what something is?” we need a branch of metaphysics called .

So how will we define things like electrons and light? In philosophy, we would ask, “what will be our ontological framework?”

We will construct our definitions of light and electrons in this course by:

  • Listing what characteristics objects have
  • Listing how objects interact with other constructs

Thus, our definition of an electron will be a list of its properties and interactions. In defining light and electrons in this way, we will see that we must actually look at two other objects: electric and magnetic fields to complete our picture. Does listing properties and interactions really entirely define what it means to be an electron or light? Probably not! There are certainly other possible ontological frameworks, but those are topics for a philosophy class. Science is a powerful way to understand the world, but its requirement of experimental falsifiability does have limitations which is why general education courses are so important for scientists!


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Physics 132: What is an Electron? What is Light? by Roger Hinrichs, Paul Peter Urone, Paul Flowers, Edward J. Neth, William R. Robinson, Klaus Theopold, Richard Langley, Julianne Zedalis, John Eggebrecht, and E.F. Redish is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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