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The view from Carleton College's physics department

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How difficult is physics?

Posted by Melissa on November 17, 2010

Perusing my electronic media today, I was amused by the contradictory messages that surfaced. On his blog, The Dayside, Charles Day wrote:

If a school’s catalog of courses were a music store, physics would be the modern jazz section, where you’d find the likes of Eric Dolphy’s 1964 album Out To Lunch!…[J]ust as modern jazz is enjoyed by a small band of enthusiasts, physics will likely remain a minority interest. Physics is too esoteric and difficult to become as popular as country and western music.

I read the Dayside just after reading Richard Hake’s message to the Physlrnr list-serve (also posted to the AERA-L listserve), “Is physics difficult?” In that message, Hake quotes a 1989 article by Ken Ford:

Physics is difficult in the same way that all serious intellectual effort is difficult. Solid understanding of English literature, or economics, or history, or music, or biology – or physics – does not come without hard work. But we typically act on the assumption (and argue to our principals and deans) that ours is a discipline that only a few are capable of comprehending. The priesthood syndrome that flows from this assumption is, regrettably, seductive . . . If physics is not more difficult than other disciplines, why does everyone think that it is? To answer indirectly, let me turn again to English. Six-year-olds write English and (to pick a skilled physicist writer) Jeremy Bernstein writes English. What separates them? A long, gradual incline of increased ability, understanding, and practice. Some few people, illiterates, do not start up the hill. Most people climb some distance. A few climb as far as Bernstein. FOR PHYSICS, ON THE OTHER HAND, WE HAVE FASHIONED A CLIFF. THERE IS NO GRADUAL RAMP, ONLY A NEAR-VERTICAL ASCENT TO ITS HIGH PLATEAU. . . . . When the cliff is encountered for the first time by. . . (14- or) . . . 16- or 17-year olds, it is small wonder that only a few have courage (and the skill) to climb it. There is no good reason for this difference of intellectual topography.

This message brought to mind a radio interview with UC Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller that I heard this week. Listen to the first five minutes of the interview (the first five minutes are definitely worth your time), and you will hear Muller echo the concern that physics only seems difficult and esoteric because of the way it is taught. Muller emphasizes that physics is highly relevant for topics ranging from global warming to national security, but the organizational structure of introductory physics and the “fog of math” are often used as a cloak, obscuring conceptual ideas that are relevant, engaging, and accessible.

We don’t do physics any justice by highlighting how esoteric and difficult it is, and we actually risk the future health of the field. Can physics research be esoteric? Certainly, but even esoteric topics can become mainstream. One need only consider the trajectory of the laser. Is physics difficult? Yes, but not more difficult than other serious academic pursuits. Perhaps the real difficulty is rethinking how we can teach physics to make it accessible and engaging, particularly for those who do not plan to be physicists.


2 Responses to “How difficult is physics?”

  1. Amy said

    You know, you could substitute “computer science” or “engineering” for “Physics” and the arguments would be the same. The priesthood attitude is sooooooo pervasive, and even if you can sort of, kind of mitigate it locally, our students will face it as soon as they leave the Carleton bubble. Great post, Melissa!

  2. […] is a great post by Melissa Arjendu, author of Confused at a Higher […]

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