Dear Mr. President: An open letter on the state of Physics education
November 12, 2012 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Dear Mr. President: “You're the President of the United States: a country with 5000 nuclear weapons, birthplace of the world's computing and telecommunications industry, home of the first atomic clock and creator of the global positioning system. But chances are, if you just took regular American high school physics, you don't know one iota about the science behind these things (no offense). That's because high school physics students across most of America are not required to learn about pretty much any physical phenomena discovered or explained more recently than 1865.” From Henry Reich of Minute Physics. (Can't watch video? Click the "interactive transcript" button under the video to read it instead.) Minute Physics previously, previouslier.

“[L]et me list some useful and important ideas of the last 150 years of physics that aren't a required part of most standard US high school physics courses: Photons. The structure of atoms. The existence of Antimatter. GPS. Lasers. Transistors. Diodes and LEDs. Quarks. Chaos Theory. Electron Microscopy. MRI scanning. The Big Bang. Black Holes. Star formation. The fact that gravity bends light. The fact that the universe is expanding. The Higgs Boson and the weak and strong nuclear forces and all the rest of quantum mechanics and relativity and the topic of every single Nobel Prize in Physics since… always. Basically, most of the important stuff.”

More about Minute Physics.
posted by ocherdraco (69 comments total) 22 users marked this as a favorite

 
Couldn't the same be said of History classes? Nothing in my high school curriculum took us past 1876, which means we missed all of WWI and WWII.
posted by Vindaloo at 10:33 AM on November 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think that's more of an outlier for history, though. My high school history classes (in US history, at least) went up into the early 1990s (and I started high school at the end of the 1990s).
posted by ocherdraco at 10:35 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Basically, most of the important stuff.

Well, okay, sort of. It's the important stuff ... except for all that stuff that was discovered before 1865, and you need to know in order to understand the more recent stuff. Trying to understand modern physics without a good grounding in classical physics is pretty difficult.

I agree that the net effect — students not understanding the first thing, really, about the technology that they're surrounded by and increasingly depend upon to survive — is deplorable, but with a limited amount of time available in the highschool curriculum, and a fair number of students graduating without being literate, to say nothing about math or science or anything else, it's hard for me even as a lover of physics to say where that additional time should come from.

Well, except by making the school day into a legitimate 9-to-5 job, rather than the weird 7-to-2:30 thing that it is now, and eliminating summer break because that's a holdover from using kids as stoop labor in the fields. But whether that additional time should be spent on physics or on other fundamental-to-not-failing-at-life skills, I'm not sure.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:38 AM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


High school physics should probably focus on using calculus and understanding units. Antimatter, lasers, and GPS are cool, but at a high school level it'll just end up being a vocabulary test.
posted by ryanrs at 10:42 AM on November 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


Trying to understand modern physics without a good grounding in classical physics is pretty difficult.

It's more like learning all the wrong stuff first, creating a solid multi-year foundation of completely incorrect ways of understanding the universe, and then building on that by actually never learning the new less-wrong and more interesting stuff
posted by crayz at 10:43 AM on November 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


Newtonian mechanics is hardly wrong. It's a model which fails when applied to certain situations but it works just fine for many many problems.
posted by peacheater at 10:51 AM on November 12, 2012 [16 favorites]


The structure of atoms.

Yeah, because I learned that in chemistry class.
The existence of Antimatter. GPS. Lasers. Transistors. Diodes and LEDs. Quarks. Chaos Theory. Electron Microscopy. MRI scanning. The Big Bang. Black Holes. Star formation. The fact that gravity bends light. The fact that the universe is expanding. The Higgs Boson and the weak and strong nuclear forces
Well, here's the thing though: The physics I learned in high-school was Newtonian physics. And it's true that we knew most of it by the start of the 20th century.

But the reason is that that physics very accurately describes everything that happens on the human scale. Unless you're doing something that involves very high energy (like nuclear physics) or huge scales (relativity) or else very small scales (like quantum physics) then really all you need is Newtonian physics.

Newtonian physics is useful for figuring out everything from how long something will take to cook, how tire pressure works, the physics of a car crash and basically everything we deal with in everyday life except for how transistors work at the atomic level. But you don't even need to understand that to design computers, because you can model transistors as relays - it's only something you need to understand if you're working at Intel figuring out how to physically manufacture the chips.

This is information that is fundamentally useful for anyone who wants to be any kind of engineer and, I think, helpful for people who want to understand and be able to calculate and work with physics as it relates to every day life.

The other problem is that the mathematical basis for a lot of these things is far, far beyond the average highschooler. But, lost of high-school kids learn calculus and that's all you need to know to understand classical physics.

So really, I don't see how it would even be possible to give kids any real understanding of this other then simply telling them about it. You wouldn't be teaching them anything they could actually work with. It would be just teaching them about the existence of cool stuff, not teaching them how it really works.
posted by delmoi at 10:56 AM on November 12, 2012 [10 favorites]


Yeah, you gotta lie to children a bit first before jumping into the deep end.
posted by kmz at 10:57 AM on November 12, 2012


Couldn't the same be said of History classes? Nothing in my high school curriculum took us past 1876, which means we missed all of WWI and WWII.

You were probably an outlier. My "US history" classes definitely went through civil rights and Watergate. And outside of the US we definitely learned about WWII. Hard to imagine highschool history not touching on the holocaust.
posted by delmoi at 10:58 AM on November 12, 2012


High school physics should probably focus on using calculus and understanding units

high school calculus often doesn't require calculus... so uh.. how is it supposed to cover quantum mechanics, the higgs boson, or GPS? it would be totally awesome if high school students came out with a good understanding of basic electricity...

this video is just vapid and wrong. but hey, it's on youtube and the internet/MOOCs are the future of education and everything. has anyone doing "minute physics" actually been involved with teaching physics? or teaching anything? also, "Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman..." these two scientists don't belong in the same sentence.

by the way, high school mathematics doesn't usually make it to the 18th century, that is if you actually take calculus, in which case it's arguable whether it makes it past the 10th century. does that mean high school students should be learning about quantum algebra or stochastic calculus or fuck all since 1666?
posted by ennui.bz at 10:59 AM on November 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


Newtonian physics is the best way to learn calculus. Way better than calculus class.
posted by ryanrs at 10:59 AM on November 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


I enjoyed the irony of seeing the "supported by the Perimeter Institute" logo on this letter addressed to the US president.
posted by Walleye at 11:00 AM on November 12, 2012


This video is AWESOME. In my high school, Physics was not only not required for anyone to take...it was inaccessible entirely unless you'd already been a nerd for years and had therefore taken all the classes that necessarily came "before" it. The course was composed exactly as the video criticizes. There was no additional AP Physics option, because we had no teacher qualified to teach it (we had one qualified to teach AP Chemistry, but she lost that distinction after getting into a huge argument with me that ended up at the school board).

Just to add a data point to the question above about whether History might be an "outlier," in my high school (an affluent suburb near a tourism and retirement hub in the South) the History classes that everyone took were extremely sketchy and thin after the Civil War and covered absolutely nothing after Korea or Vietnam (and this was in 1990). The AP History courses weren't much different, they simply went into a lot more depth, mostly focused only on America and only on the revolutionary period.
posted by trackofalljades at 11:00 AM on November 12, 2012


I wonder why Jimmy Carter is over in his corner jumping up and down and shouting "Hey, look at me! Look at me!"
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 11:06 AM on November 12, 2012 [4 favorites]


At my high school the valedictorian hadn't even taken the upper level math courses which at my school amounted to Calculus I (no AP credit offered).

So yea, say all you want about how some people aren't cut out for math and science but I busted my butt to be one of the 7 or so people in my class that took Calculus before going on to college and to see someone walk who hadn't taken the upper level math courses was just... silly.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:07 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Just wait till this guy discovers the average person never learns any math from the 20th century.
posted by hoyland at 11:07 AM on November 12, 2012 [8 favorites]


Couldn't the same be said of History classes? Nothing in my high school curriculum took us past 1876

Ouch. Ours went through early 90s (and I started HS in 1992, so yeah, we learned about the '92 election as it was happening and becoming history).
posted by sweetkid at 11:07 AM on November 12, 2012


At my high school the valedictorian hadn't even taken the upper level math courses which at my school amounted to Calculus I (no AP credit offered).

The valedictorian isn't the most academically able student or the most intelligent student, the valedictorian is the student who acquires the most As. If honors classes are worth more GPA points, the valedictorian is the kid who realised that he or she had to avoid most electives because they didn't carry honors credit and thus dragged one's GPA down.
posted by hoyland at 11:09 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nuclear weapons? The structure of atoms? Why do these people want to turn our kids into TERRORISTStm?
posted by blue_beetle at 11:09 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Yeah, it's not about physics, it's all about math. If you know the math, the applications in physics are almost trivial (at least at high school level).
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:09 AM on November 12, 2012


Just wait till this guy discovers the average person never learns any math from the 20th century.

Newton invented his calculus in 1666. Most college students in the *sciences* never make it past the 18th century in mathematics i.e. multivariable calculus.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:10 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


*walk as valedictorian I should say. Of course everyone that walks need not have taken upper level maths. That would probably drop our graduation rate to abysmal levels in record time.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:10 AM on November 12, 2012


The issue is that you can only teach a pop-physics version of these subjects to High School Students. Yes you could tell them about Einsteins General Relativity in a vague way but you couldn't teach them the tensor algebra stuff they need to be able to SOLVE actual problems in General Relativity.

On the other hand high school kids do have the mathematics skills to solve actual problems in Newtownian Physics. They can actually work out the time of flight of balls and rockets and things.

So yes you could give them handwaving arguments about Quantum Physics or you can give them the dirty mathematical details of basic electric circuits... and it takes a few years to give them all those dirty details so you have to prioritize something.
posted by mary8nne at 11:12 AM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Newtonian physics is the best way to learn calculus. Way better than calculus class.

yes, oh god yes.

also, other than people thinking that they are "not good at math" (and shitty teachers that teach math as a series of steps to solve things, not a way of thinking) there's really no reason that most people shouldn't be coming out of high school with integral calculus under their belt.
posted by Dr. Twist at 11:13 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most college students in the *sciences* never make it past the 18th century in mathematics

Which is probably fine, because somewhere after multivariable calculus or differential equations, math gets pretty esoteric and specialized.
posted by ryanrs at 11:13 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The valedictorian isn't the most academically able student or the most intelligent student, the valedictorian is the student who acquires the most As. If honors classes are worth more GPA points, the valedictorian is the kid who realised that he or she had to avoid most electives because they didn't carry honors credit and thus dragged one's GPA down.

Yeah this is why our school didn't have a valedictorian.
posted by sweetkid at 11:14 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


If honors classes are worth more GPA points, the valedictorian is the kid who realised that he or she had to avoid most electives because they didn't carry honors credit and thus dragged one's GPA down.

Yea, I'll end the bitter rant here, but my school didn't weight anything. An A in AP Chemistry was worth the same as an A in Phys.Ed or Home Economics.

So yea, a weighted average would go towards fixing things a bit, but as it stands it seems like giving an honor to the person who best games the system by taking extra P.E. credits (as is what happened) and making sure they had teachers that gave easy A grades instead of challenging students with material is a sad way to elect a valedictorian.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:14 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Which is probably fine, because somewhere after multivariable calculus or differential equations, math gets pretty esoteric and specialized.

it's a more subtle point than that. linear algebra is basically a 20th century theory if you think about the formalism (though what you learn in a college class in terms of results is actually, well, probably 18th century knowledge if you are being generous.) it ends up being an entirely elementary subject, but the formalism only becomes powerful when you consider 19th century problems: like classifying differential equations.
posted by ennui.bz at 11:22 AM on November 12, 2012


Yea, I'll end the bitter rant here, but my school didn't weight anything. . . .

It was over ten years ago. Let it go.
posted by stopgap at 11:24 AM on November 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


We weren't required to take ANY physics. Class of 1998.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:30 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Most college students in the *sciences* never make it past the 18th century in mathematics

That's a nice Crank-Nicolson method you're using to approximate the heat equation there....
posted by RonButNotStupid at 11:30 AM on November 12, 2012


peacheater: "Newtonian mechanics is hardly wrong. It's a model which fails when applied to certain situations but it works just fine for many many problems."

In fact, as I understand it, it works fine for almost any problem that doesn't take place outside of the non-human-observable context. By which I mean, if it is large enough for me to see it without a microscope, near enough for me to see it without a telescope, small enough for me to look at all (or, hell, even *most*) of the object within a reasonable distance, it's going to behave in a manner that can be predicted by the Newtonian model.

If you want to attack anything, attack the planetary model of the atom that's often presented in physics in place of the more complex but accurate electron cloud model.

You can teach Newtonian physics to someone with a very basic understanding of mathematics. In fact, so long as you reword the problems to avoid using Calculus-specific terminology, you don't need any mathematics much more advanced than a year or two of Algebra to understand it.

And I think it's a case of tunnel vision here.

Based on my high school experience:

Most literature taught was decades or centuries old, especially when it came to poetry. Although US history might make into the 20th century for some, we never did, and thinking back on what I wrote for my AP exam is, just, shameful because I had no clue who George Wallace was. Our world history never touched the 20th century except perhaps to gloss over the Cold War in extremely ideological terms. Hell, I never took photography but from what I saw, most students were using black & white processing techniques that appeared to be decades old.

Ask any programmer and they will tell you that almost any printed textbook or class that focuses specifically on software tools, languages, or systems could easily be obsolete by the time the class is over, if not before (classes which teach theory, processes, or how to think like a programmer will always be relevant, but nonetheless you'll still see "Introduction to Java" and similar classes all over the place).

I think you'll find people learning stuff that is older or outdated all over the place. And I honestly don't see how you could teach a physics class and cover the new stuff without covering the old stuff first, and I don't see how you could cover all of that in a way that could be absorbed and learned by the students.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:31 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Hey Facebook took care of any bitterness I may have had,.... wow, it's basically a portal into their progression as people that leaves me quite content with the path I've taken. It's one of the few reasons I keep certain people on my feed at all.
posted by RolandOfEld at 11:32 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Dr. Twist: "also, other than people thinking that they are "not good at math" (and shitty teachers that teach math as a series of steps to solve things, not a way of thinking) there's really no reason that most people shouldn't be coming out of high school with integral calculus under their belt."

Not sure if modern schools have this, but we desperately need some way of handling dyscalculia. It's taken as a given that some kids are going to have more problems than most at recognizing and processing letters. So we give them special classes and special methods of dealing with the problem. Way back when it was common to think of dyslexics as just dumb, but now I think most people would agree that there are dyslexics out there who are perfectly smart but slow at processing the written word. I don't know whether that same attitude is out there for people who have trouble with numbers. Interestingly, dyslexia affects boys more than girls, while dyscalculia affects girls more than it does boys.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:37 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


If you want to attack anything, attack the planetary model of the atom that's often presented in physics in place of the more complex but accurate electron cloud model.

The planetary model was common in elementary school, but in my chemistry class (10th grade) we covered the planetary model strictly from a historical perspective: we worked our way through the various models and how they were disproved until we got to electron orbital shells. That was probably the high school class I learned the most in, since physics was basically just applied math.
posted by stopgap at 11:39 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Surprised no one mentioned Physics for Future Presidents (http://muller.lbl.gov/teaching/physics10/pffp.html) yet. The problem that people are identifying up-thread about classical/quantum/relativistic physics and when you learn it is a side-effect of both physics history and pedagogy: we think it's easier to explain many concepts in Newtonian contexts before it gets weird. For people who are going to be using physics every day, that's probably the right way to do it. And I'd like to see every student get at least that level in high-school (with or without calc; though having taught both, physics without calculus just makes no sense).

For people living in our technological world, you could argue that there should be another set of required classes: something like "Physics for Future Presidents," which should address a separate problem in science-literacy. You don't need to know the nuclear theory behind run-away fission reactions, you need to know how much energy it releases, the side-effects, how hard it is to build a bomb, and so on. I don't need my President to know the quantum mechanics behind solar cells, but I do need him to have a vague idea of how much energy a solar cell can harvest, and how that stacks up against other forms of energy generation. That sort of science literacy is something I'd like to see more of (in addition to a separate issue, that of getting better science education of the former type to more students. The ability to do high-level math and science is rare and valuable, and we need to be doing a better job of promoting it across the board to as many people as possible.)
posted by physicsmatt at 11:40 AM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Photons. The structure of atoms. The existence of Antimatter. GPS. Lasers. Transistors. Diodes and LEDs. Quarks. Chaos Theory. Electron Microscopy. MRI scanning. The Big Bang. Black Holes. Star formation. The fact that gravity bends light. The fact that the universe is expanding. The Higgs Boson and the weak and strong nuclear forces and all the rest of quantum mechanics and relativity and the topic of every single Nobel Prize in Physics since… always. Basically, most of the important stuff

Some of this seems better suited to a chemistry class.
Some of it that had in "Physical Science" classes.

My physics class was mostly F = MA and 'angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection'.

I guess the argument is that everything is fundamentally physics, but this seems like a call for better science education overall, not 'better Physics classes' in particular.
posted by madajb at 11:41 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I know, or more importantly knew, a fair bit about physical phenomena discovered since 1865, but it would hardly help me at all if I were President.

As President you don't need to understand quantum theory or E = mc^2. A short briefing on the concept of half-life, just how much damage a nuke does, and what radioactivity and fallout are would cover pretty much all the science you need to know about those 5,000 nukes.

On the other hand, if you were say JFK in 1962, you'd need to know a heck of a lot about human nature, how internal power games in the Kremlin might play out, and other such phenomena. Note also btw that time is finite, while you're learning science, you are not learning those other things: history, politics, psychology, international relations.

Why did I say "or more importantly knew"? Because even if you a learn a lot of science and love it, you'll forget most of it if you don't carry on using it. And to even make it to the Presidency, you are going to spend most of your life not using those skills, to the point where by the time you're 40, you probably won't be able to pass a test you'd have aced at 16.

Now it might be a fantastic thing if everyone were taught a little about quantum mechanics, after all it's beautiful, mind-blowing, fundamental and wondrous. Also it might teach you to be a bit humble about apparently ironclad logic like "Here's conclusive evidence that this thing behaves like a wave, so it definitely can''t be a particle then."

But not because you might need to know it if you become President, or for that matter to function well as a a citizen.

As a citizen or a President the skill you need for science is much like the skill you need for other fields... to have a good BS detector, assess whether any given so called expert is credible or riding a pet theory, whether they're spinning the importance of the thing to get funding etc. Again those are more human relations and political skills than science ones.
posted by philipy at 11:43 AM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


Another thing about high school physics is that is covers a lot of territory. It covers classical mechanics, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, optics, fluids, nuclear reactions, and a bunch more. Sure, you could throw in a day of hand-wavey bullshit about cosmology, but that's going to take away class time that could be better used analyzing the carnot cycle.
posted by ryanrs at 11:44 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


...
Well, I don't want to get any of this high school bitterness/wish-fullfillment/turnabout business, but as a current high school (English) teacher that has a BS, I'll say this: you need the foundations. Without those, talking about lasers and quantum foam or the Highs Boson is just a vocabulary game. We only have so much time with only a certain level of student. Being able to understand Newtonian Physics is a huge boost to understandinf the nature of the world. Being able to look at slopes and inclines and rates of change makes that which we encounter most (gravity) make sense. Yes, it would be nice if there was a bit more on electricity and engine dynamics, but I'mmore than comfortable picking my battles.

On the other hand, if one wanted to create a Physics Appreciation class that touched on "fun" subjects without getting into the math, that wouldn't be a bad thing, as long as conventional physics classes we're still offered/required.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 11:44 AM on November 12, 2012 [5 favorites]


There was no AP option

This isn't really a bad thing, as AP courses are basically a scam. Schools would do better to just create "honors" courses for interested students that cover more advanced material, rather than using the (crummy) AP curricula and teaching the tests.

It's more like learning all the wrong stuff first, creating a solid multi-year foundation of completely incorrect ways of understanding the universe

I really have to disagree with this. Classical physics is a perfectly good way of understanding the universe at everything above the quantum scale. It's a hell of a lot easier to understand things you can see and touch and interact with, and then learn quantum mechanics by comparison to the classical model, than it is to learn QM first and try to build up from there to the human scale.

Also, related disciplines like (non-nuclear) chemistry and astronomy depend (or at least benefit from) a solid understanding of classical mechanics. Someone who has been exposed only to QM is going to end up learning classical mechanics in order to understand basic chemical bonds or binary stars or any number of other things, so why hold off on teaching it? Trying to cram students with the whole Standard Model built up from first principles is asking for most of them to drop out before they'll learn anything remotely practical.

And on a more general level, the beauty of physics to me has always been—particularly as a highschool student—you could actually test physics; it had actual no-shit real world utility that you can demonstrate with a water balloon launcher and a protractor and a yardstick in the end zone of a football field, if you wanted to. The whole point of physics, which when you get right down to it is a bunch of interlocking models that may or may not actually have any direct connection to how the universe actually works, is that it produces testable predictions that are borne out in reality. And it becomes much more difficult to communicate that if you do quantum first rather than classical physics, because the experiments are either difficult to conduct at the highschool level, or just aren't very impressive unless you have the classical background to be surprised by the results.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:45 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.

I'll wager most of the human race was WAY WAY more ignorant when these major discoveries were made than the majority of Americans are today. I'll also toss out there that at the time Niels Bohr had his epiphany that became the nuclear age, I'd be surprised if most people's education in America went further than what was known in 1550.
posted by roboton666 at 11:50 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


"IS ARE KIDS LERNIN?" - George W. Bush
posted by quonsar II: smock fishpants and the temple of foon at 11:53 AM on November 12, 2012


Rumors of our demise have been greatly exaggerated.
posted by roboton666


Maybe I'm a nerd but... Eponysterical.

posted by RolandOfEld at 11:54 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


In my high school AP Physics class, we got all the "cool" stuff about quantum mechanics and astrophysics by watching Nova or whatever when we had a substitute teacher. I was enough of a nerd that I watched those Nova shows on my own, and also did some more reading about the cool bits of physics on my own time, but none of that helped me with or made me especially more interested in the nuts and bolts of Newtonian physics.

As much as I love learning about quantum physics and astrophysics and stuff, I'm under no illusions as to its relevancy to everyday life. Newtonian physics has a good chance of being relevant to your everyday life, if only in the abstract (knowing how much an increase in speed will affect a traffic collision, for instance). Most of the "important" stuff he lists is less so.
posted by yasaman at 11:54 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Two subjects that were sorely lacking from my high school physics courses (and I suspect most students') were special relativity and basic quantum. These subjects are much simpler than most people realize (easier than many of the mechanics and electricity & magnetism problems we tackled) but they're super-cool and their epistemological implications are VERY profound. Many (most I think) first year college courses cover them, and I think their lack at the high school level is a big mistake.
posted by Humanzee at 11:57 AM on November 12, 2012


"All models are wrong, but some are useful."
- George Box
posted by euphorb at 12:03 PM on November 12, 2012 [7 favorites]


High school physics should probably focus on using calculus

You don't realize how far you have to go. My high school physics class explicitly did not use calculus, and my (public) high school wasn't that poor or that bad.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:04 PM on November 12, 2012


We definitely covered stuff like length contraction and time dilation in my decent-but-not-amazing public high school AP Physics class. Not so much QM, as I remember.
posted by ryanrs at 12:05 PM on November 12, 2012


At my high school we made/conned/convinced kids to sign up for physics the year before and then transfer out because the administration was saying it wasn't going to be offered without x students signing up. (We few that wanted to apply for engineering schools pretty much had to have it)

Thankfully we got it offered and my physics teacher was great about giving us interludes of here's some stuff about physics you can't quite do yet (calc was the same year, woo, so nothing calc based until late in the year). HS class of 2004.
posted by Feantari at 12:08 PM on November 12, 2012


Dr. Iannis Miaoulis, formerly Dean of Engineering at Tufts and currently President and Director of the Boston Museum of Science, gave a lecture at my University last week. This is not from that specific event, but it is the same speech. Science in our K-12 classrooms. It is worth the listen if you have the time.
posted by karmiolz at 12:21 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Newtonian mechanics is hardly wrong. It's a model which fails when applied to certain situations but it works just fine for many many problems.

I agree with this completely, but it's worth noting that Newtonian dynamics has very serious internal problems.

For example, it's all developed in terms of point masses, but if two point masses were to approach each other, Newtonian dynamics would say that an infinite amount of gravitational potential energy would be converted into kinetic energy by the time they collided, and that an infinite amount of energy would be required to separate two point masses which were touching each other.

And yet, if you want to get around this by saying they can never touch or collide, what in the world could be keeping them apart when gravity is pulling them together?

I've often wondered whether Newton came up with infinitesimals--infinitely small, but not points-- to finesse this problem rather than for any purely mathematical reason.
posted by jamjam at 1:00 PM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]


He did it to fuck with Leibniz.
posted by elizardbits at 1:06 PM on November 12, 2012 [6 favorites]


Huh. All of this stuff was in my regular high school physics class (senior year), and much of it was in Chemistry (junior) year too. Electron clouds, using relativity to figure out nuclear reactions (how much mass is left, etc.) and using calculus to describe curves.

As for U.S. history, our first semester was through reconstruction (1876) and second semester was everything after, up until the '70s or so where we ran out of time. (Similar to how no art history survey course I've ever taken has managed to include post-war art.)

Last year, the organization I work for was tasked with educating the public about an update to curricula that included LGBT folks, and that was another "I thought everyone already learned about most of this stuff" moment (I got James Baldwin, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Harvey Milk and Stonewall in regular history/lit classes and had blithely assumed everyone did too.)
posted by klangklangston at 1:12 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Newton invented his calculus in 1666. Most college students in the *sciences* never make it past the 18th century in mathematics i.e. multivariable calculus.

While there are notable 19th c and earlier developments, applied frequentist and Bayesian statistics as we know them are essentially 20th c phenomena. Physics majors learn plenty of tools novel to the 20th c.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 1:16 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just wait till this guy discovers the average person never learns any math from the 20th century.

And hardly any from the 19th or 18th.
posted by Aizkolari at 1:17 PM on November 12, 2012



He did it to fuck with Leibniz.


'Here, Liebniz-- look at my infinitesimal!'

With an approach like that, I guess we can't be too surprised he died a virgin.
posted by jamjam at 1:31 PM on November 12, 2012


It's more like learning all the wrong stuff first, creating a solid multi-year foundation of completely incorrect ways of understanding the universe, and then building on that by actually never learning the new less-wrong and more interesting stuff

As previously mentioned, Newtonian physics is not wrong and is very handy for describing the behavior of things larger than molecules. NASA used Newtonian physics to put men on the moon and launch probes, rockets, and space shuttles. The military uses Newtonian physics to fire projectiles to blow up stuff real good.

high school calculus often doesn't require calculus... so uh.. how is it supposed to cover quantum mechanics, the higgs boson, or GPS? it would be totally awesome if high school students came out with a good understanding of basic electricity...

I took AP Physics B. It did not require calculus and had no problem teaching quantum mechanics, relativity, or other topics that laymen think are harder than "regular physics". What is interesting about GPS from a physics standpoint is that it is a practical, ongoing demonstration of both special and general relativity, but these calculations can be performed with algebra. Of course, when I was taking Physics B in the early 1990s, GPS was only starting to become commercially available; most people had never heard of GPS. We had no problem learning about electricity with algebra and less math. Ohm's law is not that hard.

The Higgs boson was *maybe* discovered a few months ago, so I don't know to what extent a high school physics class should cover a particle that has not yet been conclusively discovered other than as interesting research currently taking place.
posted by Tanizaki at 3:03 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


ocherdraco: "You're the President of the United States: a country with 5000 nuclear weapons, birthplace of the world's computing and telecommunications industry, home of the first atomic clock and creator of the global positioning system. But chances are, if you just took regular American high school physics, you don't know one iota about the science behind these things (no offense). "

Don't know for sure, but I assume that the people who invented the nuclear weapons, computers, internet, atomic clocks, gps systems, and more didn't do based on their high school education.
posted by 2manyusernames at 4:16 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Things beyond 1865 (or whenever) are way more complicated than things up to that point, and the things up to that point are an amazingly good approximation in everyday situations. I honestly don't see why high schoolers should be "required" -- i.e. all high schoolers must do this -- to understand relativity or quarks or whatever. It seems fine to keep it available as an option for those who are good at it, and for the rest of them to just briefly mention during the course on Newtonian physics that Newtonian physics is just an approximation that breaks down at extremely fast speeds, extremely small scales and so forth.
posted by Flunkie at 4:38 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]


I happen to work in an area of physics that is very modern (complex systems), but I believe strongly that the focus on Newtonian physics in introductory courses is pedagogically important, and here's why:

I believe that classical physics teaches a certain type of problem-solving in a way that no other subject (including modern physics) can.

In mathematics [or in formal logic], we can teach deductive reasoning; in the natural sciences, we can teach how to formulate and test hypotheses based on our observations of the world. Physics -- and, to this day, only physics -- marries these precisely: we can go through our deductive reasoning on paper using the rules of algebra (or, ideally, calculus), and our mathematical manipulations yield predictions for real world phenomena that are so eerily precise that statistics often becomes irrelevant. Classical physics directly connects the abstract reasoning of mathematics to our every-day, intuitive sense of how the world works in a way that is unique.

Therein lies an extremely valuable lesson: properly taught, physics can convey the power of mathematics not only as tool for measuring/counting, but a language for reasoning about real-world phenomena. At the same time, it takes away mathematics' intimidating esotericness: the math is saying something that we can check with an experiment! And those experiments -- unlike, say, Stern-Gerlach -- are often simple enough to be run in one's head: is the result something we expect? Do we feel lighter when the elevator starts descending?

There are many ways to understand and engage the world -- mathematics and logic; the scientific method; works of literature; the visual and performing arts; political action; &c. As a citizen in a democracy and a participant in a free market, I think it's FAR more valuable to be exposed to as many ways of thinking about the world as possible than to know, in some vague and hand-wavey terms, how an atomic clock works.

And I say this as someone who falls asleep to the lullaby of the WWV time signal.
posted by Westringia F. at 5:05 PM on November 12, 2012 [9 favorites]


I've often wondered whether Newton came up with infinitesimals--infinitely small, but not points-- to finesse this problem rather than for any purely mathematical reason.

You really ought to watch this short film: The Birth of Calculus. The presenter goes to libraries across Europe to find Newton's original notebooks, and shows how Calculus was developed and why.

I was musing about this list of topics..

that aren't a required part of most standard US high school physics courses: Photons. The structure of atoms. The existence of Antimatter. GPS. Lasers. Transistors. Diodes and LEDs. Quarks. Chaos Theory. Electron Microscopy. MRI scanning. The Big Bang. Black Holes. Star formation. The fact that gravity bends light. The fact that the universe is expanding. The Higgs Boson and the weak and strong nuclear forces and all the rest of quantum mechanics and relativity and the topic of every single Nobel Prize in Physics since…

In my HS physics class, I studied every single topic on that list, except the ones that hadn't been invented yet like GPS, or were still too obscure like the Higgs Boson. Hell, quantum theory was a difficult topic to teach in the 70s, but we learned the basics, and my physics teacher made a big point of telling us constantly that quantum theory was evolving so fast that everything we were learning would be considered obsolete by the time we got out of college, so this was all preparation for future learning. So we did a lot of hands-on experiments, like recreating Millikan's Oil Drop Experiment. Sure we studied photons, spectroscopy, Hertzprung-Russel diagrams, relativity, etc. We build circuits on breadboards (all analog of course since even the 555 hadn't been invented yet) then we hooked them up to oscilloscopes to see what they did. We even had a chance to use the local university's electron microscopes. And gravity bending light? Hell I heard you could change the angle of polarization of a laser beam with a magnetic field, so I tried to measure that. Of course you can't do that with high school equipment, it's even difficult with huge magnets and serious optical equipment. My physics teacher roared with laughter at our attempts at this experiment.

But at no time did our school ever offer calculus. I recently found my old high school math textbook from my senior year (the teachers gave me a discarded copy with a broken spine). I saved it all these years, and pulled it out when I recently worked scoring high school algebra and pre-calculus exams. My old textbook was at the level of pre-calculus. I showed it to our math instruction expert, he looked through it and said, "ooh, hardcore!" I decided to look through it, and was astonished at the steep learning curve, and where it started. Oh hey, I have it right here, I'll scan it and give you a look. Here's where it starts, on like page 1 with the Peano Postulates. You can imagine, we spent a lot of time writing proofs. The book ends with a chapter on matrices and determinants, and a chapter on the binomial theorem. This is all considered standard HS math nowadays, not even AP level. But at that time, it was enough to get me into the Honors Calculus section as a college freshman, and into the Physics department's microprocessor program.
posted by charlie don't surf at 5:07 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


The book ends with a chapter on matrices and determinants, and a chapter on the binomial theorem. This is all considered standard HS math nowadays, not even AP level.

Amusingly, your examples are two things that one doesn't assume are taught in high school. I would consider them 'standard HS math', but they seem to fall through the gaps a lot. I have no idea why. (I suppose because matrices can be hard to motivate, though I have a memory of doing Gaussian elimination in the apartment my dad lived in when I was in 8th-10th grade and that's some kind of motivation.)
posted by hoyland at 5:34 PM on November 12, 2012


Antimatter, lasers, and GPS are cool, but at a high school level it'll just end up being a vocabulary test.-- ryanrs

The basic concept behind GPS is actually pretty simple. Here's 2D GPS: There are three GPS 'dots' on a piece of paper. You are a fourth dot on the paper. You know the relative position of the three dots, and you know how far each GPS dot is from you (your dot). Get a compass (the kind with a pencil) and open it to the distance you are from one of the dots, and draw a circle around that dot. Do this for all three dots. The intersection of the three circles is where you are.

GPS satellites broadcast the positions of the whole constellation around the earth (their relative position), and by timing how long it takes for a signal to get from the satellites, you know how far away each satellite is. By receiving the signal from four satellites, a GPS receiver computer can calculate where you are.
posted by eye of newt at 7:16 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


I love Minute Physics and all, but I have to disagree with the implicit claim that students should learn modern physics, for the sake of it. I've been doing physics at A Levels, which is by and large classical physics with one chapter of quantum introductory topics, and one on lasers and semiconductors. The last two chapters are cool, for sure and I'm glad to have had the chance to geek out there.

But where I really feel like I learned something from physics is the boring classical stuff. What's in your system? What forces are acting on it? How can you analyse this systematically? That kind of analytical thinking is part of the value of science education.

At the same time, I think I'd have found it very difficult to grasp classical physics (even without using calculus, just the concept applied to graphs) without having already done calc. Here, calculus is mandatory in upper secondary school - equivalent to freshman and sophomore year of high school. So I wonder how much New and Exciting Physics can be meaningfully taught to much depth at all.
posted by undue influence at 11:21 PM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]


Therein lies an extremely valuable lesson: properly taught, physics can convey the power of mathematics not only as tool for measuring/counting, but a language for reasoning about real-world phenomena.

I would say if you take general relativity and quantum mechanics seriously, a newtonian view of the universe is completely upside-down incorrect, conceptually. We're teaching about a geocentric universe, many decades after heliocentrism has been shown correct, simply because we think it's way too confusing to teach that new-fangled nonsense

And anyway the old calculations still work really good for a lot of stuff ... let me show you these epicycles!
posted by crayz at 5:54 AM on November 13, 2012


crayz, the word "epicycle" has a meaning and it doesn't mean "approximation." It means adding something to your system so that the laws of physics you are working with give the observed answer (a fudge factor, essentially). First, let's compare Newtonian physics and relativity. Newtonian physics is the low-velocity approximation of special relativity and the low-curvature approximation of general relativity. As a simple example, in relativity, the energy of a moving object is gamma m c^2, where gamma = 1/sqrt(1-v^2/c^2). Taking a Taylor expansion of the gamma factor in small v, we get the energy as approximately mc^2 + 1/2 m v^2. The first term is the "rest energy" of a massive object (which was not realized to be related to energy until Einstein), and the 2nd term is just the classical kinetic energy. So you see Newtonian physics emerge from relativity. However, starting from Newtonian physics, the relativistic effects like time dilation, constant velocity of light, deflection of light, and advancement of the perihelion of Mercury cannot be explained simply by "adding in" a progression of small corrections (epicycles) to a Newtonian world-view. The jump from Newtonian to relativistic physics requires a major change in how you view the Universe: what can change, what cannot, and so on.

Going from classical to quantum mechanics is probably even worse to describe as a "epicycle." The equations used to govern both classical and quantum motion are remarkably similar. If you are used to working in the "force" paradigm for classical mechanics, things look crazy in the quantum world. However, there is an alternative way to do classical physics: in terms of Lagrangians and Hamiltonians (ok, two alternative ways). This is not taught to high school students or 1st year undergrads, for damned good reasons (the math is way harder). But they are more general methods that can solve a lot of problems very elegantly in classical mechanics. And, it turns out, in quantum mechanics. There are changes, of course, QM works with wavefunctions and probabilities (another major world-view change from the classical systems), but the evolution of those wavefunctions are governed by the same type of equation as the classical system. So you shouldn't view QM as some huge jump from Newtonian physics, or as Newtonian physics with a bunch of fudge factors added in; it's just using the same equations to apply to a different set of systems. The Krazy Konsequences everyone gets all weirded out about are a pretty straightforward result, once you make that leap.

As you see, classical mechanics, relativity and quantum mechanics are very tightly related. Non-classical physics simultaneously uses nearly identical basic principles combined with huge conceptual leaps to get from classical mechanics. I don't know what that's called, but it's not an epicycle, and realizing how we get our "normal" world out of these bizarre "real" systems is part of the beauty of it all.

So why teach classical mechanics first? Are we just lying to our students?

First, as people have indicated, we teach classical mechanics because physics is the study of our Universe. We happen to live at a confluence of scales which happen to be such that a low-v expansion of relativity and a minimum-action expansion of QM are perfectly acceptable for virtually all the problems that we are interested in (until you get to the point of wanting to build a transistor, make accurate measurements of the planets' motions, or start asking smart-ass questions about the speed of light and electromagnetism). So, it is worth teaching students how physics works in their daily life, and allow them to go forth and test that understanding. (note, this is a very very valuable skill for engineers, which are a large component of people taking intro physics at the college level). Second, the mathematics required for basic classical mechanics is simple enough that high school students can do it fairly easily. I like math, but I like physics more, and I would have been very put off if I was required to wait to do physics until I had linear algebra, abstract algebra, complex analysis, and tensor fields on a geometrical manifold, just to be able to calculate how an apple drops from a tree or a beam of light refracts. That would be sometime around 1st year grad school, and I probably would be a poor physicist today if I had to wait that long.

Finally, and most importantly, the concepts we work with in relativity and QM are extensions and analogs of the concepts originally discovered in classical physics. What is energy? I can give you a definition, but my intuitive feel for a concept like energy comes from my understanding of "energy" in classical systems: I have more energy when I'm moving, I have more potential energy at the top of a hill, I expend energy to get other things moving. Without that connection, physics is just a particular set of equations in math, and I would be rather unimpressed with it. For example, I mentioned the Lagrangian formulation of classical and quantum mechanics. In this formulation, classically we discover that Nature minimizes something called the action. What the fuck is the action? Well, it's an integral of a combination of kinetic and potential energy over the path an object takes. Did that clear it up for everyone? No? This is why you learn about it in classical mechanics (usually 2nd or 3rd year undergrad on a normal course schedule), so that, when you move to QM, you get why finding stationary points for the action in a quantum system is important.

There might be other orders in which to teach physics; the one we use now is not necessarily the best. But it is not illogical to proceed in this manner, and a good teacher will never have to "lie" to his or her students while doing so.
posted by physicsmatt at 7:38 AM on November 13, 2012 [3 favorites]


I feel like I'm just piling on at this point, but really, this is unbelievably stupid.

a country with 5000 nuclear weapons

As pointed out earlier, history and psychology are way more important for the responsible handling of a nuclear arsenal than is a working knowledge of the physics. By his logic we should have put Teller in charge of our nukes. I mean, he built bombs, surely he would be in the best position to use them responsibly.

birthplace of the world's computing and telecommunications industry, home of the first atomic clock and creator of the global positioning system.

This is even sillier -- even among the people on the ground in these fields, most don't do anything with the low-level physics.

Beyond which, what exactly are the public policy ramifications of having an atomic clock? I'm still trying to puzzle that one out. (But IANAP, so maybe that's my problem.)

Mostly, this seems like a guy having a pissing contest. Everything is ultimately built on fundamental physics, therefore fundamental physics is the only thing you really need to know. Are you a chemist? That's just physics. Biologist? Physics. Accountant? Physics. Social worker? Physics. Why learn a dumbed-down approximation of the ultimate knowledge, when you can learn the real thing at the cost of only several orders more complexity?
posted by bjrubble at 8:33 AM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]


Physicist Elected to Congress Calls for More Scientists-Statesmen: Bill Foster, member-elect of the U.S. House of Representatives, wants more scientists in Congress who can bring to bear an analytical mind-set to lawmaking
posted by homunculus at 8:07 PM on November 14, 2012 [1 favorite]


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