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Physics Everywhere If They Have Their Way

Riding the bus between the Five College campuses, for some, can be a boring waste of time, a period devoid of brain-engaging stimuli, filled instead with brainless advertisements and offering little opportunity for mental exercise.

Now, thanks to a brainy program called “Physics on the Subway” (POTS), funded by Amherst College and Five Colleges, Inc., riding the bus is an opportunity to learn about physical scientific phenomena and how it affects our world.

What happens to the water level in a pond when you throw your boat’s anchor overboard? Is it more energy efficient to turn down your house thermostat on cold nights? Why do objects in the passenger side mirror appear closer than they are?

That’s only a sample of the physics puzzlers posed on the buses through a cartoon strip featuring talking (and very inquisitive) dogs and cats named Archie and Isaac. After riders have read the comic strip and contemplated the solution, they can then check their hypotheses on the Internet (at where extended explanations of the puzzles are posted.

The POTS project was initiated by Robert Romer, professor emeritus of physics at Amherst College, and John King, professor emeritus of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. All his life, says Romer in a Five College, Inc. press release, he has been “trying to get people of various ages to think about physics and to enjoy doing so, and this is just one way of continuing that mission.”

Though the puzzlers are posted on buses, “Physics on the Subway” is so named because the idea was borrowed from a similar program on the London underground, says Romer. The colorful cartoon posters were created by artist Bruce Aller. UMass Transit, which operates the buses, waived its usual advertising fee for the program.

“Physics on the Subway” is part of King’s and Romer’s ambitious dream of instituting “Physics Everywhere,” as Romer calls it, “in the cradle, on the playground, on buses, in subways, on matchbook covers.”

The Five College buses, for them, are only the beginning.

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