Thursday, January 23, 2020

Physics Needs To Change

From an article at Quora discussing why people fail at physics.
  1. It requires complex mathematics.
  2. It involved complex critical thinking and problem solving skills.
  3. Many of the concepts can be hard to visualize.
  4. It requires precise answers instead of vague notions.
If we are to retain more people in physics programs and get them to graduate, we're going to need to make some significant changes to physics. Not just the way it's taught, but the content as well. Here are a few suggestions to get you started thinking about how we can make the understanding of physics universal.

First off, let's get rid of differential equations. Derivatives and integrals are too esoteric for most people. If we get rid of those, then many more people will be able to pass their classes. On first blush, it doesn't seem like it will make much of a difference. After all, momentum is just mass times velocity. No calculus required.

Allow of ballpark answers. Does it really matter if the mass of a sphere is 10g or 10mg? No. A sphere is a sphere and has all of the good properties of spheriority no matter what size it is.

Allow pictures to replace equations. Instead of using abstract concepts to describe something in physics, just draw it, maybe with some lines and arrows and that's good enough. 

I think you can quickly see how a few, harmless changes will be help to significantly increase the retention rate of physics students without making a big change in the content of the courses. After all, the important thing is to get people to stay in physics classes.

Worthless nonsense. Out it goes!


tim eisele said...

"significantly increase the retention rate of physics students"

The immediate question is, why would we want to do that? Do we actually need to train more physicists than we are training now? I understand our physics department has difficulty finding jobs for the numbers of physicists that graduate as it is. If nobody is willing to hire them, what is the value of retaining more students in the program?

This whole, "oh my god, we need more STEM students immediately!" strikes me as fundamentally wrong-headed. We already have as many people studying these fields as the employers are willing to hire. Anyone who says there aren't enough, really mean that there aren't enough who are willing to work on highly skilled technical jobs for burger-flipper wages.

K T Cat said...

Tim, I wrote this to codify an analogy I had in my head. It's an answer to those who want to change the Catechism to match modern day morality.

The problem with changing either the Catechism or physics is the downstream effects. Both are logical constructs like a massive Jenga tower. Removing this or that rule, changing this or that equation to make it easier to understand brings the whole thing crashing down.

I would bet that changing any equation to remove differential equations and replace them with basic operator approximations would quickly obliterate the validity of the entire science. Did you ever read about the legislatures who wanted to replace Pi with a simpler formula or number?

tim eisele said...

In that case, I am not sure it is a good analogy. The whole position of the Catholic church has always been that, ideally, everybody should be Catholic. Which means that the church needs to be accessible to, and understandable by, everyone.

Physics is a whole other thing. There is no real need for the vast majority of people to really understand more than the bare rudiments. Trying to turn everyone into a physicist is not only unworkable, it probably isn't even desirable because it would take time away from the people who are trying to do any of the thousands of other necessary jobs in the world.