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Open letter, the end of physics

  1. Jun 9, 2007 #1

    It's also called "the new dark ages"
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 22, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Jun 9, 2007 #2

    no wonder why zapper z has been writing in his blog about the state of physics education in england.
  4. Jun 9, 2007 #3
    I don't what the hubub is about.

    Almost none of the tools that are most important to physicists - networking, scientific writing, teamwork, leadership, creative thinking - are seriously taught in school classes. No physics class before your sophmore or junior year of college physics has any significant value to your future in physics, and in truth the undergraduate physics classes are terrifically worthless if you don't go on to graduate classes afterwards.

    As far as I can tell this guy is a high school or freshman college teacher. I see little harm done by the changes, because the value of what he did before that was so low.
  5. Jun 9, 2007 #4
    I read his story a few days ago and found it... disappointing.

    It certainly doesn't help the public understanding of science (in this case physics) when it emphasizes qualitative instead of quantitative. Physics works by obtaining quantitative results and then making conclusions based on those results. It sounds to me that they turned the physics curriculum into a debate course. Give the course a different name, but they surely aren't learning physics... not even the "tools most important to physicists" as listed by Locrian.
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2007
  6. Jun 9, 2007 #5
    somewhat off-topic, but if anyone is interested there is a excellent book called "The End of Science" by John Horgan. He interviews various scientists from various fields (physics, cosmology, computer science, sociology...) and gets them to discuss the possiblity of the end of their field, and if not the end of the field but the end of any major advancment. Pretty good read.
  7. Jun 9, 2007 #6
    Bull****. Who wants to take a class on "networking" (the social/job kind)? Or a class on "teamwork"? Writing skills, leadership and creative thinking are skills that you develop by studying F=ma or measuring the life time of a muon or studying for an optics exam with friends.

    A well taught high school physics course has the potential to inspire students to pursue science or engineering in the first place.
  8. Jun 9, 2007 #7


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    Exactly. If such courses fade from existence, people will be less inclined to go into said fields.

    I took GCSE and A-Level physics, and they bored me to death, completely killing any hope of me being interested in physics. (And I took them a few years back. I can't imagine how they've managed to dumb them down even further!)
  9. Jun 9, 2007 #8


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    As soon as people realize they need science, they'll care about it again don't worry.... The question is, how long is that going to take?
  10. Jun 9, 2007 #9


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    That, actually, is a pretty outdated point of view, especially in light of Bob Laughlin's criticism of the fallacy of the "Theory of Everything".

    Remember the lessons learned from Superconductivity. By 1986, almost everyone thought that the field has "matured", and for the first time ever, they thought that there's nothing more left to be discovered in that field of study other than added complexities and applications. And look what happened since! Each time we think there's nothing fundamental left to be discovered, Mother Nature throws a curve ball at us.

  11. Jun 9, 2007 #10

    Chris Hillman

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    Ditto ZapperZ. And it's not just Mother Nature-- the same thing happens in mathematics. Example: in the late nineteenth century, invariant theory was famously declared "dead", after Hilbert solved the most famous open problem by stating and proving the Hilbert basis theorem. (I think the death certificate was a joke which wound up being taken seriously by some outsiders, but never mind that.) But invariant theory never really died and if you check the arXiv you'll see quite a few recent eprints on invariant theory!

    But the real reason I am posting is to mention that the BBC has actually had quite a bit about the decline of higher education in physics in the UK during the past few years; see for example
  12. Jun 9, 2007 #11
    Untrue. Most physicists working in both academia and industry say their people skills were not up to par when they entered the field. You can find surveys done by the AIP that have shown this. All one has to do is spend a little time around first year grad students to see that most did not typically learn those skills as undergrads.

    Of course, this is okay as long as one accepts that everyone must go through graduate school to become a physicist (and, of course, that grad school does a good job of teaching those skills). However, I would also argue that presenting these courses to students out of context of what a physicist actually does attracts the wrong kinds of students to the field.

    In any case, I don't see why having high school classes go from really dumb and unrepresentative of physics to really really dumb and unrepresentative of physics is worthy of much uproar.
  13. Jun 9, 2007 #12
    Well, given that there's been an overproduction of physicists for decades, in what way is this supposed to be a bad thing for the field?
  14. Jun 9, 2007 #13
    By the way, the answer to this is "people who want to be a good physicist, faster." You can learn the slow, traditional way, but why?

    Leadership, on the other hand, is not something you want to learn the slow way. There should be classes on team management for people wanting to be physicists. That most universities don't require them should be a constant source of embarrassment.

    If the thought of spending time learning those things bothers anyone, then physics may not be for you.
  15. Jun 9, 2007 #14
    I get the impression that Physics has probably become a little too difficult for most, in this age of instant gratification. Folks begin to lose the sense of urgency when their bellies are full & they are living well.

    Japan, for instance, is bemoaning this problem amongst their younger generation. This issue occurred in the US in Engineering, for instance, a few years back. It gives the more 'hungry' nations an opportunity.

    It is a result of "The Law of Nations" - nations rise & nations fall, all eventually end up becoming a nation of bankers once they've gone over the top of their hill.
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2007
  16. Jun 9, 2007 #15
    I would be very interested if you could point me towards this survey. By "enter the field" do you mean "became a professor?"

    I really doubt that physics degrees are any worse than, say, engineering degrees or anthropology degrees at developing writing, leadership and creative thinking skills. More could probably done (especially in lab courses) to develop writing skills, but many undergraduates can (and do!) write papers that are published in scientific journals.

    I would also be interested to hear how you propose to teach a course on something like "creative thinking". This is a skill that to me is really only developed by solving the sorts of problems that are generally posed in physics textbooks. Of course, there are bad "plug and chug" problems in these physics textbooks too, but working on a good problem *will* promote development of a creative impulse in a scientific context.

    Perhaps you need to develop some more of those people skills that your physics degree hasn't afforded you. It's important to care for the interests and welfare of others. Especially when those others are the future of your field!

    On a personal level, I find teaching enormously satisfying because I get to convey to the students the excitement I feel for physics and for the mathematical description of the physical world. It is, after all, a little amazing that the Coloumb force between two particles falls off as 1/r^2 - just like the force of gravity! It's a reward when the students notice that and appreciate it too. And it's extremely frustrating when curricula or exam questions encourage students to feel that physics is an arbitrary collection of facts and formulas, which seems to be Wellington's main criticism of the new curriculum in Britain. If a well-qualified individual is being turned off teaching because of the curriculum, this is indeed cause for action.
    Last edited: Jun 9, 2007
  17. Jun 12, 2007 #16
    The work I did before I returned to school largely took care of that (and is also the reason for my success in my education). Thanks for your sincere concern, though.
  18. Jun 12, 2007 #17
    Actually many engineering schools have several classes devoted to management as well as projects that require team work. How effective they are is something up for debate, but my experience with people who do the hiring is that engineers are considered superior candidates to B.S. physics students and that their teamwork skills are a factor. Starting salaries and job availabilities would appear to confirm this on a broader scale.

    The two necessary ingredients are that the students must be solving problems that don't have solutions yet (though closely related problems may), and that they are given free use of all problem solving tools to solve them.

    Most effective problem solving tools are not only not taught in school, but are discouraged. For instance, looking for solutions in the literature and consulting with others are both important problem solving tools that can provoke disciplinary actions in many high school and undergrad physics classes. The reason is, of course, because the problems are completely contrived and have simple known answers. We are therefore left to handcuffing the students to keep them from getting the answers the "easy" way. After fifteen years of such handcuffs, many students have essentially lost the use of those problem solving tools.

    Most undergraduate physics curricula do not really get the students out of this mindset. I like to think that graduate studies do, but sometimes I do wonder.

    I do not believe that high school physics and undergraduate physics classes require real problem solving tools; those problems are largely crank turning problems that at best require repetition and at worst require the student to have observed them being done once before. I'm sure there are exceptions here and there, but that's the problem - they're the rare exception, and not the rule.
  19. Jun 12, 2007 #18
    See, the thing I don't get about your comments is that you initially professed not to care whether the quality of physics teaching is *really* crappy or just crappy.... But you've responded to my post in a very thoughtful and heartfelt manner - which demonstrates you do actually care quite a bit!

    This is a very valid point and I agree that physics coursework would be vastly improved if students were obliged to tackle occasional problems without pat solutions. However, I think it's also necessary to work on the simple problems which develop basic analytical and mathematical abilities before tackling the more complicated open problems which develop all those teamwork and higher level problem-solving skills.

    In my experience, most academic honesty policies are able to distinguish between the sort of collusion that is beneficial to students and that which is not ("cheating"). As for the "handcuffs", exam situations aren't meant to test higher level problem solving skills, but rather to ensure that students can do the basic things (balance forces, work with graphs and slopes and rates of change) that will allow them to tackle the more interesting problems.

    Doing rote, boring problems can't really be avoided. Surprisingly, people do seem to learn from repetition and from being exposed to the same problems posed in slightly different ways. Indeed, there are ways to make homework more useful to students: my high school teacher never awarded marks for homework, but he did give the questions along with a solutions manual - if the students got stuck they could "look it up in the literature". And since the homework wasn't graded, there was no motivation to cheat.

    The point made in Wellington's article is that the new curriculum he is obliged to teach neither allows students to develop higher-level problem solving skills - OR to develop the fundamental tools for the mathematical description of physical phenomena. I agree with you that high school and undergraduate coursework should aspire to develop the problem solving skills that you've described, but we can't improve physics teaching by dismissing the entire system as unsalveagable.
  20. Jun 12, 2007 #19

    George Jones

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    For my fourth-year, year-long applied math (Arfken-plus level) final exam, we were allowed to bring anything (notes, text, library books, food, booze, ...) except another person, and we could write for as long as we wanted.

    I have seen grad courses that had final exams of the following format:

    open notes;

    four hours;

    do any four of five questions.
  21. Jun 12, 2007 #20


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    I have been following this story for a while since it was first discussed oohh... nearly a year or maybe more ago. I live in the UK and also have an involvement in teaching GCSE subjects as a private tutor. I have to say that this is the single biggest disappointment I have ever encountered. Not only has the subject been stripped of any real value (consisting as it has been mentioned of merely reading comprehension and debating) but a majority of the public seem to support it. This is as bad as the intelligent design debate. It constitutes nothing more than those with little or no knowledge attempting to tell the experts what's right and what's not.

    The UK government will not create the enthusiasm they desire for science by dumbing it down. They need to find why its really failing and address the problem properly. Unfortunately I don't work in a school environment and so I could not offer any insight as to the particular cause. As someone who took GCSE science less than a decade ago I could still not offer any insight as I enjoyed it and it led me to do my masters degree in physics. Perhaps there is an emerging cultural reason, but whatever it is it won't be solved by this new syllabus.
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