Making Physics Accessible to the Understanding of Many People

The Mathematical Research Letters provide a unique chance for researchers from all fields and specialties to come together and learn even deeper nuances of everything from basic linear equations to fairly existential polynomial reasoning. (Meaning, it takes a huge amount of talent to think as abstractly as these mathematicians and theoretical physicists do!).

But to break some seemingly complicated, and even mysterious concepts down for more of a basic understanding is the hallmark of a true teacher. Richard Feynman, a world renowned physicist and mathematician did just that for the BBC back in the late 1980’s during a series of informal talks (he was in an armchair in his living room), given in response to the probing questions of a reporter who had absolutely no concept of physics and wanted to preserve the explanations of a known genius for all time.

One particularly interesting explanation was the one which Feynman gave to help foster an understanding of combustion. Fire is a universal concept, but neither caveman nor modern man can really explain what it is or why it is, we just use it and are wary of its dangers. Using the mental image of a tree in the forest, Feynman begins with explaining how molecules of carbon have a natural desire to snap together with oxygen molecules. In a kind of mind-blowing revelation, Feynman continues by saying that while the world thinks that trees grow from the ground, in reality they grow from the air. Some nutrients in the ground are necessary for their growth, but ultimately the leaves of trees absorb the carbon dioxide from the air and utilize the light of the sun to extract the carbon molecule to add to the tree (wood is carbon in a huge percentage), and takes the oxygen molecule out, releasing it into the air. While this is an excellent explanation of how important it is that we have trees to neutralize large amounts of greenhouse gases, this does not yet explain the concept of fire.

Using an analogy of someone trying to roll a ball up a hill and into a deep hole on top of the hill, Feynman went on to say that while the oxygen molecule also desperately wants to snap together with the carbon atom, it actually cannot do so until enough energy is put into it to get it up that hill and over. With heat being the measure of atomic movement and energy, it can be deduced that enough heat is required to get that oxygen molecule to snap to the carbon. Once the molecules begin to do so, the reaction is fairly powerful enough that the light and heat that come out is what we see as fire.