SITE VISIT: Applets of a Physics Prof's Eye

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Science  23 Jul 1999:
Vol. 285, Issue 5427, pp. 491
DOI: 10.1126/science.285.5427.491b

In books like Mr. Tompkins Explores the Atom, which was first published in 1944, the scientist George Gamow used dialogue, amusing scenarios, and his special brand of hand-drawn graphics to explain physics to a wide audience. If Gamow had access to Java applets—Web-based routines that allow for animation and interactivity—he might have come up with something like the Physics 2000 site.

Conceived by Martin V. Goldman, a physicist at the University of Colorado, Boulder (where Gamow worked for many years), the site is built around a number of clever Java “experiments” that students can adjust and set in motion. In one 3D experiment, for example, knobs control the magnetic-field strength and electron-beam intensity in a TV's cathode ray tube. Another shows how standing waves create “hot spots” in microwave ovens. There's even a series of applets that shows how laser cooling produces Bose-Einstein condensates—a bizarre, low-temperature state of matter that was first created in physics labs only a few years ago.

A roster of cartoon characters then explains the physics. The sometimes wooden dialogue still can't match that of Mr. Tompkins, where a valence electron sings: “If you want a partner fair/Jump into chlorine and find one there.” But then, Gamow didn't have Java.

For still more advanced physics experiments using Java—but without the dialogue entirely—check out the site operated by astronomer Gregory Bothun of the University of Oregon, Eugene (


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