Pendulums, Pedagogy, and Matter: Lessons from the Editing of Newton's Principia

Science & Education 13 (4-5):309-320 (2004)
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Abstract
Teaching Newtonian physics involves the replacement of students’ ideas about physical situations with precise concepts appropriate for mathematical applications. This paper focuses on the concepts of ‘matter’ and ‘mass’. We suggest that students, like some pre-Newtonian scientists we examine, use these terms in a way that conflicts with their Newtonian meaning. Specifically, ‘matter’ and ‘mass’ indicate to them the sorts of things that are tangible, bulky, and take up space. In Newtonian mechanics, however, the terms are defined by Newton’s Second Law: ‘mass’ is simply a measure of the acceleration generated by an impressed force. We examine the relationship between these conceptions as it was discussed by Newton and his editor, Roger Cotes, when analyzing a series of pendulum experiments. We suggest that these experiments, as well as more sophisticated computer simulations, can be used in the classroom to sufficiently differentiate the colloquial and precise meaning of these terms
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