The Los Alamos Primer

Or how to build an atomic bomb.

One of the best curriculum ideas I ever had was to use this book as the text for an intro to physics course. It was written in 1942/3 by Robert Serber who had been tasked by Robert Oppenheimer to teach a course to newly arrived scientists and technicians on the fundamentals of the Manhattan Project they were involved with. It is a fascinating book, released from its top secret status only in 1992. It is a fascinating overview of the most important concepts in physics in 1942 that were both fundamental and essential to building the bomb.

I suggested it to my son Brenan who was assigned an intro high school physics course at a private high school without any time to prepare or text or materials to use. He planned to combine some of its simple lessons in physics with lessons in history and morality. For just as the physicists at Los Alamos questioned its ultimate usage, he sought to engage students not only in physics concepts and real-world problems but in the responsibility that physicists and all of us have in use of the ideas we develop or support. It was a brilliant and creative way for him to begin a physics course and engage his students in this great subject. Unfortunately, his classes started on September 10, 2001. Needless to say, he ended up pivoting in a different direction.

But it is still well worth thinking about the lesson and ask, “How do we connect our physics classes with the world our students are living in?” “What do our students have to know to prepare themselves for their future?” “Would you rather learn fundamental physics by dealing with the atomic bomb problem or by learning the definition of time, distance, and velocity?” And when we think about engaging students during those critical first six weeks of a physics course gets me wondering the same about our math courses. What kinds of projects can we develop into our math classrooms to bring them alive, to insure our students crave learning math and do not sit back asking what is perhaps the ugliest of all questions, “Why do I have to learn this?”

When I think about project-based-learning I picture The Los Alamos Primer, Leo Szilard’s The Voice of the Dolphins, and Brenan’s moral questions.