From Classroom to Solar System: Newkirk Award
What began as a seemingly simple question about how long it would take the Earth to fall into the Sun if stopped in its orbit, has become a (hopefully) valuable classroom exercise thanks to the Department of Physics and Astronomy’s Newkirk Award. I have been working to creating new course material for PHYS-381: Computational Methods for Scientists, under the supervision of Dr. Targett. The material was based around the idea of using python code to create a working solar system model that could be generalized and applied to a variety of problems. It focuses heavily on use of recursion and pythons’ ability to be interpreted line by line. The course begins with the question “how long would it take for the earth to fall into the sun?” and slowly generalizes that into a 3D orbital simulator. This project was very fun to watch develop as correct solutions resulted in the mimicry of a complex natural system using only introductory physic. The highlight of this was when the Moon-Earth-Sun system had been implemented and I could accurately predict the position, velocity, and acceleration of the moon. After generalizing the program, it became simple to “play around” with, which allowed me to do things such as create a binary star system, and add new objects into our own solar system to test that effects.
This project not only taught me how to use and apply python, but also how to approach larger scale physics problems that don't have clean mathematical solutions. Before I began work on this award I assumed that all physics has a clean mathematical solution. After completing this award, I can confidently say there is a mathematical solution, but programming an approximation was much more efficient and practical, and provides far greater utility. As a first physics research opportunity, it has greatly helped widen my horizon, and I am very grateful to have received the Newkirk award.