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Flying circus of physics

The Book

The Flying Circus of Physics began one dark and dreary night in 1968 while I was a graduate student at the University of Maryland. Well, actually, to most graduate students nearly all nights are dark and dreary, but I mean that that particular night was really dark and dreary. I was a full-time teaching assistant, and earlier in the day I had given a quiz to Sharon, one of my students. She did badly and at the end turned to me with the challenge, “What has anything of this to do with my life?”

I jumped to respond, “Sharon, this is physics! This has everything to do with your life!”

As she turned more to face me, with eyes and voice both tightened, she said in measured pace, “Give me some examples.”

I thought and thought but could not come up with a single one. I had spent at least six years studying physics and I could not come up with even a single example.

That night I realized that the trouble with Sharon was actually the trouble with me: This thing called physics was something people did in a physics building, not something that was connected with the real world of Sharon (or me). So, I decided to collect some real-world examples and, to catch her attention, I called the collection The Flying Circus of Physics. Gradually, I added to the collection.

Soon other people wanted copies of the Flying Circus material, first students in Sharon’s class, then my fellow graduate students, and then some of the faculty members. After the material was printed as a “technical report” by the Physics Department at Maryland, I landed a book contract with John Wiley & Sons.

The book was published in 1975, a few years after I became a physics professor at Cleveland State University; it was revised in 1977. Since then, it has been translated into 11 languages for publication around the world. This is the second edition of the book, which is completely rewritten and redesigned.

When I began writing Flying Circus material, I searched through only a few dozen research journals, page by page, and discovered few relevant papers. Indeed, my metaphor for the project was that I was digging for gold in an almost barren mountainside---the gold nuggets were few and hard to find.

The world has changed: Now, many hundreds of research papers with potential Flying-Circus material are published every year and, in terms of my metaphor, I find huge gold veins. And now I don’t dig through just a few dozen journals; I look through about 400 journals directly and use search engines to sort through hundreds more. On many days my fingers just fly over my computer keyboard. I wish Sharon could look over my shoulder at all the really curious things I find. With the book you get that chance: Come look over my shoulder and you’ll see that physics “has everything to do with your life.”

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