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How Stuff Moves


What is “How Stuff Moves”?

Mechanics is the study of how things move. It was the first quantitative science to achieve wide power to predict behavior, including things never before directly observed. Newton, Leibniz, and others invented calculus to describe motion and we will find both differential and integral calculus extremely useful throughout this course.

This course parallels the second-semester mechanics course taught at Harvey Mudd College. It covers the same topics as the AP Mechanics C course; if you are a high-school student who successfully navigates this course, you will be extremely well prepared for the Mechanics C exam. Although passing an exam is a worthy goal—and certainly way better than not passing the exam!—I hope that you will approach this material as more than just an opportunity to notch a credential. This course is an invitation to develop your problem-solving skills and to learn how to apply mathematics to all sorts of problems of the physical world. Learning the rules that govern how stuff moves in the world around us is exciting; using those rules to predict correctly something that you haven’t observed means that you really understand something. It’s a great feeling.

What Should I Know Before We Start?

You need not have taken physics before, but we assume that you have studied mathematics, including

  • algebra — including solving systems of 2 or 3 equations in as many unknown quantities, simplifying expressions, factoring, etc.
  • trigonometry — the unit circle, definition of the standard trigonometric functions (sine, cosine, tangent, and their inverse functions), radian measure for angles, the law of cosines
  • geometry — basic properties of circles, triangles, rectangles, parallel lines
  • functions — if the x position of an object is a function of time t, how to graph x(t) given some functional form, and understanding that such an expression means that the x position has a unique value for all values of t [often in a finite range of times, to be sure]
  • differential calculus — the meaning of the derivative of a function of a single variable and how to compute derivatives for common functions
  • integral calculus — the meaning of the integral of a function, how to compute simple integrals using common strategies (substitution, including trigonometric substitution, parts, etc.)

You may be taking a calculus course concurrently with this course—that should be a good strategy. We will introduce important calculus ideas and methods as the need arises and provide examples.

There is a Mathematics Diagnostic Test in a unit or two that you can take to find out if your mathematics background is good to go.

Course Staff

Peter N. Saeta

Peter N. Saeta

Professor of Physics

Ph.D. Harvard University. Ultrafast physics, semiconductors, photovoltaics, energy and environment.

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need to buy a textbook?

No. The required text by T. M. Helliwell, Motion I and II, is available by chapter within this course.