Stories from physics 6: energy and thermal physics

Message from the author: 

Energy is a fundamental explanatory concept that physicists use to make sense ofthe world. Yet, as Richard Feynman emphasised, energy is ‘a most abstract idea’. This abstraction means the concept can be one that students find hard to engage with. I hope that the stories in this booklet provide some routes to introducing and illustrating energy in the classroom.

We report studies of the energetics of fights between creatures in the Pleistocene era, before asking how many people were required to build the pyramids. After detouring through early cooling technology in the Old Kingdom of Egypt, you will read about the power output of Norman water mills.

Fast forward to Émilie du Châtelet’s contributions to research on energy and why she had to disguise herself as a man. Find out about Count Rumford’s ‘boring’ experiments and why he wore a white hat in winter. Discover how bleeding in the tropics prompted an early proposal of the principle of conservation of energy.

More recently, discover Einstein and Szilard’s collaborations on fridge design. Read why Scott of the Antarctic should have paid more attention to his energy calculations and how a soft drink limited Concorde’s ability to cruise at speed. Complement your reading with a cup of tea made to the British Standards’ guidance (BS 6008:1980).

I am grateful to the Institute of Physics for making this collection of the stories a reality. In particular, I want to thank Caroline Davis for managing the project and editing the booklets, Ian Horsewell for his insightful comments, and Stuart Redfern for his wonderful illustrations.

So, let me tell you some stories from physics…

2021 IOP Awards

Teachers of Physics Award

Recognising and celebrating outstanding contributions to the field of physics education.

Learn more