About the Abecedarium

An abecedarium, or abecedary, is an “alphabet book,” that is, a book with images of the letters of the alphabet, often accompanied by pictures of common words that begin with the letter that is illustrated—“A for Apple, B for Ball” and so on.

While abecedaria are often instructional books for children, many are also ornate works of art with exquisite calligraphy and illustrations. In The Physics Abecedarium, we have sought to combine both art and instruction by recreating the abecedarium in a modern form to illustrate the “alphabet of physics.” In this dynamic “book,” beautiful videos of physical phenomena take the place of static illustrations, and each video illustrates a fundamental concept of physics. Whether you know a lot of physics or none, we hope that these videos will give you a glimpse of the beauty and precision of the laws of physics, and that they will provide you with many moments of delight.

History of the Abecedarium Project

The abecedarium project grew out of an attempt to help students taking the introductory calculus-based physics course at Elmhurst University visualize how the equations of physics relate to the world around them. In the first part of the course, the students use calculus, the mathematical “language” invented by Newton and Leibniz, to study mechanics, the quantitative description of how objects move. Even though we are immersed in a world filled with moving objects, students often find it hard to connect the mathematical description of motion with their experience of how objects move. The aim of the Physics Abecedarium is to provide a collection of videos of physical phenomena that can be analyzed frame by frame. We hope that these videos will provide the visual link that helps students connect the mathematical description of the world with their physical experience.

The use of video analysis in undergraduate physics education was pioneered by Priscilla Laws and Hans Pfister, professors of physics at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania [1]. Early work on video analysis used cameras with low spatial and temporal resolution, which limited the range of phenomena that could be imaged in an undergraduate laboratory. With the availability of low-cost, high-speed cameras in the consumer electronics market, such as the Casio Exilim, it has now become possible to make remarkably sophisticated videos of physical phenomena.

In 2009, with support from an Elmhurst University Interdisciplinary Course Development Grant, we bought two Casio Exilim cameras and students and faculty started to make our first high-speed videos. Our early efforts were far from satisfactory. The colors were not sharp, the illumination was not uniform, and we had a number of other problems to deal with. A series of Elmhurst physics majors patiently solved these problems one by one. Each video on this site is the result of many hours of hard work by a dedicated group of students. Matthew Allmandinger led the way and spent nearly two semesters setting up the first high-speed videos. He was followed by Mike Wydra, who, with dogged persistence, standardized these techniques and also built a lighting rig that allowed us to make high-quality videos repeatably. This work was continued by four more students—Robert Morton, Nathan Parker, Nathaniel Kabat, and Tom Koopman.

Besides the considerable effort put in by the students, the abecedarium project would not have been possible without the very generous support of the Elmhurst University Center for Scholarship and Teaching (CST) through their Faculty Development Grants. We are especially grateful to Professor Earl Swallow, Professor Kimberly Lawler-Sagarin and the members of the CST for their support of this project.

[1] Using Digital Video Analysis in Introductory Mechanics Projects, Priscilla Laws and Hans Pfister, The Physics Teacher, p. 282, Vol. 38, May 1998

Connect with #elmhurstu