The Subject of Light ~ 12th Grade PhysicsThe 12th grade physics block has at its heart the subject of light.
We begin by examining human perception of light as a holistic experience that arises in the integration of physiological and psychological responses.  From our experiences of color we uncover the visible light spectrum and widen it to encompass the entire range of electromagnetic radiation from the low energy and long wavelength radio waves to extremely high energy and short wavelength gamma rays.  By looking at the spectrums of electrified tubes of low density elemental gasses, we get a thumbprint of the energy level transitions possible for each element.  These discrete possibilities point to the quantized nature of matter and the concept of light as a particle rather than a wave.

Quantum mechanics is the area of physics that plays out the wave-particle dual nature of light.  While we are knee-deep in the atom, we turn to nuclear physics and learn what fusion and fission are, how nuclear weapons and nuclear power production work, and the enormity of the responsibility humanity holds in our nuclear knowledge.  We finish the course by considering the counter-intuitive implications of the constant speed of light, the field of special relativity.  Throughout the block, students research a topic of interest to them and present their findings along the way in a seminar-style format, with a final essay, demonstration or artistic project at the end.  This year’s topics range from the history of stage lighting to the differences between LCD and OLED screen technology to the effects of blue light at night on our circadian rhythms.

In today’s field trip we saw:
  • how light shows off its wave-like properties when beamed as laser light through thin slits
  • how fiber-optic cables guide light at extreme speed and efficiency to deliver us modern telecommunications
  • how a telescope leverages the advantage of a magnifying lens into a tool that allows us see to great distances
  • what the world looks like in infrared where people glow, windows become as opaque and reflective as a mirror, and black plastic bags are see-through.

Rosemary McNaughton, High School Physics and Math

The Subject of Light ~ 12th Grade Physics