December 10, 2013

How to make physics boring

Today I enjoyed reading a rather longish post by Jason Rosenhouse. He's a brilliant math/physics/atheist guy whose blog I read religiously. (Funny how you can use that word.) The post is called Teaching Calculus.

It relates JR's experience when he changed the way he teaches an introductory course on calculus. Short version: he skipped the wildly detailed stuff that bores new students and instead showed them what calculus can do. He sounds like a marvelous teacher.

But the article reminded me of my irritation when I hear about the physics courses my nephews are taking. They had physics in high school and now they're taking it in college. One is a freshman, the other a sophomore.

Here's my gripe. None of their teachers showed them even a glimpse of the marvels revealed by physics. When I mention this or that intriguing discovery in the field, they know nothing about it. Their teachers haven't even taught them about the double-slit experiment! They know nothing of quantum reality, nothing about the Planck scale, and they've never heard of string theory. Apparently not one of these teachers bothered to tell them that physics is about the nature of reality -- what it really is on the largest and smallest scales, and how it came to exist. Spooky action at a distance? The warping of spacetime near a black hole? Boltzmann brains? It's all news to them.

Where's the joy, teach? Physics is the most beautiful thing I've ever encountered. I spend a sizable portion of every day thinking about some aspect of physics. Once you've been introduced to the topic properly, its magic can't help but color your life.

The nature of space-time, the current lack of understanding regarding quantum gravity, the possible likely existence of alternate universes, the idea that what everything is made of, including us, is largely empty space -- these are wonders. But my nephews' physics teachers apparently exclude wonder from their courses. It's not allowed.

From what I know of Jason Rosenhouse, I suspect he's probably a wonderful teacher. And I think the teachers who "taught physics" to my nephews are awful teachers. There is wonder in every subject (except religion, of course). And it's the job of every single teacher to pass that wonder on to their students. I only wish my nephews had encountered a physics teacher who understood this.

As it stands, physics doesn't interest them and they hope to soon leave it behind, permanently. That's so sad.


cm said...

I happened to watch Through the Wormhole with Morgan Freeman yesterday. Well some of it anyway. The double slit experiment was shown among other things you talked about in this post. Amazing. I can't believe I actually have an idea what you are talking about. The more I understand the more it amazes me. It is too bad the nephews teachers don't talk about this stuff. Talk about missed opportunities.

writenow said...

Hey, cm! I love the double slit experiment. It makes you think and then think again. BTW, ho ho ho. Only two weeks until Christmas. Amazing.