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Why cannot Physics be taught like Math?

  1. Oct 19, 2009 #1
    I was (re-)reading the Feynman lectures, wherein Feynman comments it is not possible to teach Physics the way one teaches math; that one cannot just give all the basic axioms we have built on the subject till now, and then develop from there. He goes on to say that one needs to develop an intuition for the subject. Isn't intuition necessary in math too (or is this a different intuition we are talking about?)?

    I understand that physics has more of its basis on experiments and that's where the axioms stem from.
    Once that is done with, is it not possible to use these as axioms and develop the subject from there? If the theory we build on is right and it predicts something that we can verify experimentally, we can do so and that would be a supporting factor for our theories.

    Is this not the same as they do in math: play with the topic, make a conjecture, see if one can find a proof and hence prove a theorem or chuck the idea?

    I also understand that no one does their experiment saying, "Hey! I'm going to look for an axiom that describes the world today." But when one does do an experiment, what does one use as a basis to model their experiment? How does one check if his experiment is right? He'd use whatever physics he knew at the time of setting up the experiment, right? So wouldn't that be like building upon the older axioms and hence more or less like math?

    Please and Thank you.
  2. jcsd
  3. Oct 19, 2009 #2


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    Experiments are always right, at least as long as no one is actively trying to commit fraud.
    The tricky part is preparing the experiment in such a way that the results can be used to learn something new; and once the experiment is done to interpret the data.

    From a practical point of view most experiments will contain an element of "Lets try and see what happens" where you are not sure what you expect.
    After, all you DO know what result you will get there is no point in performing the experiment in the first place, is there?
  4. Oct 21, 2009 #3
    The axioms of physics are observation- that is the one truth, this is vastly different from maths where the axioms are "sensible" sounding rules which are then built up from in the hope that the result is a useful structure which can be used to model the world. With physics the game is reversed- you see the results and have to work out the rules, or 'axioms' of the universe!

    That's my view..

    Feynman was a very intuitive physicist anyway so I'm not surprised he said that, but I agree that the analytical side is often overestimated, especially in school where the exam system is strongly biased towards finding numerical answers and expressions.
  5. Oct 22, 2009 #4
    I think what had to be said was said by the two previous posters. However, I find your question about intuition compelling. Mathematical and physical intuition are very different things. In large, for classical dynamics, physical intuition stems from your every day experiences. When you get to more "unintuitive" theories like Relativity and QM, we develop a sort of understanding of how the world works in those regimes, and this is independent of the mathematics involved. Mathematical intuition is something that is developed from playing with mathematics and learning to find interesting patterns or how to predict how some problem will turn out in a purely mathematical sense. Mathematical intuition is a critical tool for physicists, as it can allow them to see how the equations of motion will develop after the physical parameters in the system are well defined. However physical intuition plays little role in mathematics (save for fields of math that can applied directly to physics).
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