Is Physics Dead?   2 comments

You would be forgiven for thinking so, the way Physics is taught.

The ‘Laws of Physics‘ were written in final form nearly 200 years ago. 99% of your everyday experiences with the physical world are accurately described by those ancient texts. I teach Introductory Physics, and one class goal is to appreciate this fact- that ideas dreamed up almost 400 years ago, and existing unchanged since the US Civil War- can be used to understand why the sky is blue and how planes can fly. And how to shoot a monkey falling out of a tree.

Even so-called ‘modern’ physics (Quantum mechanics and Relativity) is approaching 100. Furniture is labeled as ‘antique’ by the age of 75.

My introductory physics class covers the *exact* same material- in the same order- that your grandfather learned. The major textbooks used to teach this material were (first) written in the 1950s or even earlier. In fact, a Physics major will graduate after learning a canonical body of knowledge existing essentially unchanged for almost 70 years. Graduate school (at least to the level of a Master’s degree) is not much better. It’s no wonder the public can confuse physics and religion- they are both taught the same way.

And it really seems to be only Physics suffering from this disease- Biology, Chemistry, and Computer Science all use up-to-date textbooks to communicate new information. It’s exceedingly rare for a biomedical research paper to contain a reference more than 5 years old; in Physics, it’s common to cite papers over 50 years old. I see first hand, non-Physics majors who take Physics I and II as part of a general science requirement often come away from class seeing Physics as old and dusty. Part of history, not relevant to their lives. Physics majors often believe large parts of Physics are irrelevant, having been superseded by “more fundamental” theories.

I don’t think anyone could legitimately argue that Physics research is useless- we can all agree that there’s lots more to discover and learn. However, there is more to physics research than just particle accelerators and black holes. The goal of physics is not to find the god particle or a theory of everything, and personally, I’m not even sure what those mean- other than a catchy slogan used to sell books.

What can be done? A better textbook is part of the answer. There are some good alternatives to the canon, but I feel that what matters more is the order of the material- it’s not fair to whine that students have an inherent bias towards Aristotelian concepts, when the course material merely aims to swap it for another, equally outdated set of concepts; that is, Newtonian.

“Quantum” is part of the everyday language now, and is an essential part of the computers we use all the time. Relativity is an essential component of GPS, another universally available technology. Why not start a class right off the bat using quantum and relativitstic concepts? Mathematical complexity isn’t a good excuse- algebra suffices. In fact, quantum mechanics and relativity appear confusing only by starting from Newtonian concepts. We are all familiar with the idea of ‘quantum’- money is quantized. Similarly, we are all intuitively familiar with curved space- we live on a curved surface.

I’ll be provocative here- I think academic Physicists like the current canon simply because that is how they were taught, and as a result the current curriculum does not reflect any higher brain function. That’s no basis for teaching a dynamic and vibrant subject such as Physics.

I’ve experimented with teaching the basics of quantum mechanics and general relativity in (algebra-based) Physics I and II. Truthfully, I do have to write a few equations on the board as ask the students to simply accept them as true. But guess what? We do that *anyway*- if you can remember taking Physics, ask yourself how much of the material was simply dictated for you to memorize?

Physics is not a dead science. It should not be taught the same way dead subjects are.


Posted September 5, 2010 by resnicklab in Pedagogy, Science

2 responses to “Is Physics Dead?

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  1. Physics of course is not dead, we are just experiencing the silence before the storm… Real discussion about Quantum discussion has just started … It’s not only the mathematics it’s the Philosophy also… Science is not mathematics

  2. That’s not really what I mean- we both agree that Physics is exciting and vibrant, but that is precisely what is missing from the curriculum.

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