George Caplan

George M. Caplan
(781) 283-3374
B.A., Swarthmore College; S.M., Harvard University
Science Center 550B

George M. Caplan

Senior Instructor in Physics Laboratory

Physics laboratory instructor; interested in electric power, lab instrumentation, and old-fashioned string theory.

Although most people prefer that electric power lines be buried, I enjoy looking at wires on poles and trying to figure out what they do. When I realized that all three phases of the three-phase power system are available in Wellesley's physics labs, I developed a way to display the three-phase waveforms, and I wrote a paper about that. Before coming to Wellesley, I realized that introductory physics textbooks often discuss a well-known inertia demonstration involving the breaking of a string, but they never analyze the demonstration quantitatively. As a result, Mark Heald and I wrote a paper about string breaking. We then discovered that a similar analysis had been done in papers in 1945 and 1946.The 1946 paper carried the analysis further than we had, but Mark noticed an error in that paper, so we wrote a second paper. That's how I became an expert on old-fashioned string theory.

Physics education research shows that a physics teacher should be a “guide on the side,” not a “sage on the stage.” Physics students learn best by doing, and I enjoy helping them learn in our lab. Several of my students have presented reports on their lab projects at Wellesley's annual Ruhlman Conference.

I also enjoy developing new material for use in the laboratory. Using a Hughes curriculum development grant, I developed a human vision lab. Although I have many years of industrial experience in software and electronics, I knew little about optics and optometry before I began developing that lab. I learned quite a bit, and so apparently did (at least) one of my students: After graduating from Wellesley, she decided to go on to study optometry. Her decision was based, in part, on the human vision lab. With several other members of the Physics Department, I worked on the development of a bungee jump lab. We thought about having a student do the jump, but we decided to use a weighted teddy bear instead. This made the experiment less exciting, but a lot safer. The bungee lab was not dull, however. Students competed to calculate a bungee length for which the teddy bear would jump off a walkway in the Science Center and come as close as possible to, without touching, the floor three stories below.

I am interested in helping pre-college students learn about physics, math, and electronics. I have helped with physics and math at several Boston-area high schools, and in July 2009, I taught three, one-week physical science classes at College for Kids at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill, Mass. One class was for ages nine to 11, and the other two were for ages 12 to 14. I discovered that I preferred teaching the younger students because they were surprised by the science and because they were not interested in using cell phones or impressing boyfriends and girlfriends.

I enjoy bicycling. In 1982, I began keeping track of my mileage, and I have ridden more than 33,000 miles since then. I also enjoy writing algebra problems for my daughter, who occasionally enjoys doing those problems. I cannot, of course, help her do them because I "don't do it the way the teacher does at school."

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