1. Limited time only! Sign up for a free 30min personal tutor trial with Chegg Tutors
    Dismiss Notice
Dismiss Notice
Join Physics Forums Today!
The friendliest, high quality science and math community on the planet! Everyone who loves science is here!

Why, oh why, don't many physics programs EDUCATE?

  1. Apr 27, 2010 #1
    http://www.newmancause.co.uk/" [Broken]:
    Boy, after having obtained a B.S. degree in physics and astronomy from a state university, can I relate to this! My professors never required that I read, e.g., the original classic physics papers that liberal arts students at, e.g., http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/" [Broken], do! Consequently, everything I learned was a disconnected array of facts and problems to solve. Problem-solving isn't nearly as stressed in Italy, according to my Italian physics friends, so why is it here? So, here are my two main questions:
    • Why is problem-solving stressed so much in U.S. physics programs?
    • Why aren't the classic papers and books required in U.S. physics programs?
    For example, these are what students, working towards BAs at the liberal arts schools St. John's College and Thomas Aquinas College, read:

    At St. John's College
    Descartes, Le Monde
    Huygens, On the Motion of Colliding bodies
    Leibniz, “On Body, Force, Elasticity”
    “Essay on Dynamics”
    Newton, “Principia”
    Mayer, “Remarks on The Forces of Inorganic Nature”
    Maxwell, “On Work and Energy”
    “On Heat Engines”
    Huygens, Treatise on Light
    Newton, “The New Theory about Light and Colors”
    Young, “On the Nature of Light and Colors”
    Taylor, “On the Motion of the Stretched String”
    Bernoulli, “…On New Vibrations of Strings”
    William Gilbert, On the Loadstone
    Charles du Fay, letter concerning Electricity
    Benjamin Franklin, letter to Collinson
    J.A. Nollet, “Observations on Several New Electrical Phenomena”
    Chales Coulomb, “Memoirs on electricity and magnetism”
    Alessandra Volta, “On the electricity excited by the contact of conducting substances”
    Hans Christian Oersted, “The efficacy of electric conflict on the magnetic needle”
    Faraday, Experimental Researches in Electricity
    On Static Electrical Inductive Action, Letter to Philips
    Answer to Dr. Hare’s Letter
    A speculation touching Electric Conduction and the Nature of Matter
    On Lines of Magnetic Force
    On the Physical Character of the Lines of Magnetic Force
    Albert Einstein, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies”
    “Does the inertia of a Body Depend upon its Energy Content?”
    “On the Influence of Gravitation on the Propagation of Light”
    “The Foundation of the General Theory of Relativity”
    Hermann Minkowski, “Space and Time”
    Faraday, “On the absolute quantity of Electricity associated with the particles or atom of Matter”
    J.J. Thomson, “Cathode Rays”
    R.A. Milliken, The Electron
    E. Rutherford, “The Scattering of α and β particles by matter and the Structure of the Atom”
    A. Einstein, “Concerning a Heuristic Point of View about the Creation and Transformation of Light”
    N. Bohr, “On the Spectrum of Hydrogen”
    L. De Broglie, “The Undulatory Aspects of the Electron”
    E. Schrodinger, Four Lectures on Wave Mechanics
    C.J. Davisson, “Are Electrons Waves?”
    W. Heisenberg, The Physical Principles of the Quantum Theory
    Physics and Philosophy
    N. Bohr, “Einstein’s Objections to Quantum Mechanics”
    A. Einstein, B. Poldosky, N. Rosen, “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete?”
    N. Bohr, “Can Quantum-Mechanical Description of Physical Reality be Considered Complete?”
    D. Bohm, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics
    http://www.thomasaquinas.edu/curriculum/index.htm" [Broken]
    Aristotle On Generation and Corruption
    St. Thomas Aquinas On the Principles of Nature,
    On the Combination of the Elements
    Lavoisier Elements of Chemistry
    Avogadro Masses and Proportions of Elementary Molecules
    Dalton Proportion of Gases in the Atmosphere
    Gay-Lussac Combination of Gaseous Substances
    Pascal Treatise on the Weight of the Mass of the Air
    various authors Scientific papers of Berthollet, Couper, Lavoisier, Mendeleev, Richter, Wollaston, Cannizzaro, et alia
    Atomic Theory Manual
    Einstein Relativity: The Special and General Theory
    Huygens Treatise on Light
    Newton Optiks
    Maxwell A Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism
    Gilbert De Magnete
    Ampere Papers
    various authors Mechanics, Waves, and Optics Manual
    Electricity and Magnetism Manual
    Why do I deserve a B.S. in physics when these liberal arts students are the ones, based on their knowledge of these classics, more educated in certain respects of physics than I?
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 27, 2010 #2

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I sympathize with your perspective-honestly. I am currently stepping through some seminal papers in the development of thermodynamics elsewhere on this site; I understand and agree with you that there is value in reading the original source material. There was more than a few moments when I considered going to St. John's instead of RPI. Especially after I got to RPI....

    However, the undergraduate physics curriculum, designed for a student who is going to have a career in physics/engineering/science/etc.- has different goals. For example, reading Newton's 'Principia' and *not* reading (for example) Halliday, Resnick, and Walker, will leave the student ill-prepared for graduate school, a technical job, or any other 'next step'.

    Now- problem solving. I agree with you that the 'shut up and calculate' approach has been taken too far. I am happy to tell you that the AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) agrees with you as well, and has sponsored a workshop for new faculty (I went last year) for about a decade, with the goal of finding and developing *better* approaches to teaching the Physics curriculum. I am constantly reminded of the statement "Progress is possible only when the old generation dies off".

    So- go and read the original material; it will undoubtably enrich your understanding. But always live in the present, looking towards the future. Besides using contemporary mathematical skills, you needs skills that simply were not available then (meaning there is no 'original source material'): computer modeling, for example.
     
  4. Apr 27, 2010 #3

    lisab

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    That list of reading looks more like a great curriculum for a 'History of Science' major. But how is that knowledge going to help a student who has just landed his first job, and is asked to operate an oscilloscope, or tackle a difficult technical problem? Knowledge is great, but you need marketable skills, too.

    I suppose you could have both but I don't know how the typical undergrad student would find the time to read all those books. It's already a very tough 4 years.
     
  5. Apr 27, 2010 #4
    Speaking of which, you can usually find classes on many of the texts listed above - just not in physics departments. History and Philosophy of Science often have their own unified department with people studying these things. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_and_philosophy_of_science. Other schools will have classes in either history or philosophy departments. Any good philosophy of science course will go into some history.

    I wrote my undergraduate philosophy thesis analyzing the historical development of the interpretation of QM, covering original Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Bohm, Bell, etc. This isn't an unusual type of thing to do in philosophy departments at all. It's exactly the kind of thing that is studied in philosophy of physics. In my case a physics professor was happy to advise and read it too, and I would assume that you'd be able to get support from your physics department if you went this route.

    I do think that even a single course in philosophy or history of physics would be very helpful for physics undergrads. Some physics students can have as much of an arrogant and dismissive view of the philosophical and historical foundations of their field as bad philosophy students can have of physics. A dose of perspective can be very useful in both cases.

    (Bohr was my favorite, by the way, and you can find the leading Bohr scholar, Jan Faye, in the philosophy department at the University of Copenhagen. And for the record I also majored in engineering.)
     
  6. Apr 28, 2010 #5
    Sure, but what about those students going off to grad school in theoretical physics? Where do they learn creativity, which will help them devise new and ingenious theories, if not by readings the masters themselves?
     
  7. Apr 28, 2010 #6
    Indeed, but I am not advocating that all physics programs become history or philosophy of physics departments. I am just noting that these things, in any degree whatsoever, are sorely lacking in the vast majority of undergrad physics programs. I suppose what I am really thinking is that physics should not be taught as a self-subsisting knowledge system that just suddenly appeared, as though via "divine inspiration," from the intellects of a handful of 20th century minds. It has a history; it is human, and its knowledge is in no way exclusive of all other types of knowledge. In fact, it can profitably learn from other disciplines for the advancement of itself and the other fields, too.
     
  8. Apr 28, 2010 #7
    While I fully agree that the history and cultural context of science are both very important, I am not sure that I agree with the Roman Catholic agenda implied in links from the first post.

    There are many things that could be improved in University education, but trying to teach 'creativity' by forcing people to read the scientific 'masters' seems more like the exams to enter the Imperial Chinese bureaucracy. Should there be more of a balance? Yes, certainly. But I worry that mandating these kinds of courses would just result in students cramming historical factoids to pass irrelevant tests.

    You don't teach creativity. You inspire people to want to create.
     
  9. Apr 29, 2010 #8
    "Roman Catholic agenda?" Please explain.
    Sure, they shouldn't be forced; they should be inspired.
    This might be true. I've always thought of it as follows: Teachers give the students the tools, and the students create with them.
    Yes, I agree with this, but how?
     
  10. Sep 10, 2010 #9
    Personally, I would suggest leave them with the tools and expose them to the materials that have the potential to "inspire" (eg. the lists above) instead of making it as a required course and testing on irrelevant exams. Hopefully with enough personal time in the students' hands they will eventually come up with something that they find interesting, which is usually where creativity comes about from one's mind.
     
  11. Sep 10, 2010 #10

    ZapperZ

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    So how are you going to explain all the creativity that's coming out of these theorists that HAVE undergone the traditional curriculum? Or are you claiming that we haven't had any creative theorists these past many years?

    Furthermore, since when do theorists have a monopoly on "creativity"? That's insulting to experimentalists who have devised some of the most ingenious experiments, and discovered some of the most unexpected phenomena.

    The classic papers are wonderful in historical terms. However, they are NOT useful pedagogically! You do not gain real knowledge simply by reading something, something that is common in arts majors. You cannot solve for the forces needed to support a structure simply by reading Principia.

    Zz.
     
  12. Sep 10, 2010 #11

    bcrowell

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    IMO reading historical papers like the ones you listed is not particularly useful in understanding physics deeply, developing the ability to be creative in physics, or even in developing the ability to think skeptically in a broader context. There are a lot of reasons why people end up learning to calculate rather than to understand what they're doing. Often the reason is that their professors only know how to calculate. Or the student may not care about anything beyond calculation. Calculation is also a necessary (but not sufficient) part of developing a deeper understanding.

    One shouldn't create a false dichotomy between lousy textbooks and logically rigorous primary academic papers. Even at the freshman level, not all textbooks are incoherent hodgepodges of spoon-fed facts like Halliday or Serway. For example, some of the Berkeley Physics Series is very good, as is PSSC Physics and the Feynman lectures. It's just that 95% of freshman texts are terrible, and if your professor is of the "shut up and calculate" persuasion himself, then he isn't going to be willing and able to search out the other 5%.
     
  13. Sep 10, 2010 #12

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I think it's a bit over the top to claim 95% of freshman texts are "terrible". Most books can be perceived either as good or bad depending on how they are presented to the student- it's helpful to remember that Feynman's lectures were reviled by his students. More accurately, a majority of freshman/introductory physics courses are geared towards simple "shut up and calculate" approaches. The books are interchangeable.
     
  14. Sep 10, 2010 #13

    bcrowell

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    "Terrible" is an overly broad term, and I shouldn't have used it. As I read the original post, it was a complaint about courses that teach "what" but not "why." In other words, a liberally educated person should know not just "gravity is proportional to 1/r^2" but "how do we know that gravity is proportional to 1/r^2?" I would certainly claim that 95% of freshman texts bother with "how do we know" less than 25% of the time. As a random example, read Halliday and Resnick's explanation of relativistic momentum and energy.

    A textbook sets the agenda of a course. An instructor who picks a book like Halliday has set a certain agenda: we will learn "what" but not "why." Typically the instructor picks such a book because the instructor only understands "what" but not "why." In that environment, a ceiling has been set on how much the students will learn.

    Actually I believe this is nothing more than a popular myth. IIRC Feynman made some remarks about how he considered the course to be a failure, and these were taken out of context and exaggerated later.

    It's also important to realize that the OP's concerns about understanding the "why" questions are not concerns that are shared by most students. Most students want a book that tells them how to solve exam problems using cookbook recipes. There may very well be a negative correlation between a book's popularity with students and the degree to which it accomplishes what the OP was asking for.

    I don't consider Purcell's treatment of E&M to be interchangeable with, say, Halliday and Resnick's treatment of E&M. Purcell answers the "how do we know" questions. H&R doesn't.
     
  15. Sep 11, 2010 #14
    I have to disagree completely OP. It sounds like you wanted a degree in the history of science. I have my own issues with the educational environments I have encountered, namely the condescending and aloof nature of 75% of physics professors. But I am very glad that in my education the practical skills needed for physics were stressed, and not the historical perspective. This gave me skills which are marketable in industry and did not cause me to become a useless academic.
     
  16. Sep 11, 2010 #15

    D H

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    The students at St. Johns eventually learn calculus, but apparently http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/academic/mathtutorial.shtml", and then they learn it primarily by reading Newton's Principia. That is terribly late to learn calculus, and a terrible reference as well. What is the value of reading the Principia to a physics student? Have you tried doing so? I have. I have; it is insufferable. Newton takes pages upon pages of slow text and archaic geometric arguments to arrive at and explain a simple result when expressed using modern mathematical notation.

    Newton was writing for a different audience than today's science and mathematics student. The mindset of the audience and the mathematical tools available in Newton's time, even augmented with Newton's calculus, limited the nature of the discourse. It is the nature of the discourse rather than the physics and mathematics that is of interest to liberal arts students. Liberal arts students are expected to read several thousands (tens of thousands?) of pages per year, with the volume of material read per year increasing as the students advance. Science and mathematics students are expected to read several hundreds of pages per year, with the volume of text read per year decreasing as the students advance. Different mindsets and different goals result in different teaching techniques.

    Those liberal arts students are reading the initial papers to discover the progression of human thinking rather than to understand modern mathematics and physics. Mathematics and physics students read the centuries-long refinement, consolidation, and expansion of those initial concepts. The initial presentations are ofttimes awkward and murky. It took a long time to distill those initial ideas down. It is the distilled thinking that is the essential concept to learn for math and science students. That the initial concepts are a bit awkward and verbose is precisely why these classical papers are of interest to liberal arts students but are of little value to the undergraduate science and mathematics students in the mainline science and math curriculum. They might well be of interest if the science/math undergrad chooses to take an elective class or two in the philosophy of science.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  17. Sep 11, 2010 #16

    Andy Resnick

    User Avatar
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    I find it odd that you chose a decidedly advanced concept to support your claim regarding introductory texts. I have a well-documented argument against the canonical introductory physics class, but *adding* advanced material is not part of my solution; clarifying the essential concepts is. Either way, neither of us thinks the OP's book list appropriate.

    A textbook does not set the course for anyone other than a lazy instructor- as you point out. Nowadays, there is so much more to introductory courses than just the printed text- many professors augment with online content.


    Goodstein and Neugebauer, who wrote the Preface to the series in 1989 and were present during the 1961-62 and 63-64 lectures, state very clearly that students "dreaded" the class, and that attendance steadily decreased.

    As I've said many, many, times: I think the undergraduate Physics curriculum needs an overhaul. Purcell may be the one exception out of the half-dozen 'standard' texts currently in use; I have not read the Berkeley Course series.
     
  18. Sep 12, 2010 #17
    It sounds like you never wanted to get into the fundamental questions of physics when you first started your degree? If that's the case, then how you were educated was probably good, but I would call it more like a vocational training.
     
  19. Sep 12, 2010 #18
    Sure, but I can assure you you will understand it better. A lot of physics information gets lost when its all wrapped in equations. We really do take for granted what the equations mean.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 25, 2017
  20. Sep 12, 2010 #19

    D H

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor

    I can assure you that you will not. Newton's reasoning mostly took a long and tortured geometric path rather than a more direct and simpler algebraic path. That shouldn't be surprising; Newton lacked the tools that make the short and simple algebraic path possible. Amongst other things, Newton lacked the concept of limits (early 19th century), vector analysis (late 19th century), and modern algebraic notation (Newton's time to the mid 20th century) that make even simple mathematical and physical concepts much easier to describe and understand.

    It comes down to a matter of time. It is no longer possible for one person to be well-versed in all subjects. A bachelors degree is supposed to take four years or so to obtain, not dozens. The large amount of material that needs to be covered in any undergraduate program necessitates that some peripheral material be given short shrift, or not even covered at all. Those students at St. Johns don't learn calculus until their junior year, and that which they do learn is sandwiched between a lot of other material. Mathematics and the sciences are given short shrift at St. Johns. St. Johns deserves a tip 'o the hat; most liberal arts colleges give even less consideration to mathematics and the sciences.

    Most mathematics and physical science baccalaureate programs require students to take a significant number of liberal arts classes such as philosophy of science and history of science. These are worthwhile subjects. Then again, so are the fine arts, languages, humanities, social sciences, ... Not all can be covered in a four year technical education.
     
  21. Sep 12, 2010 #20

    ZapperZ

    User Avatar
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Education Advisor

    There is a difference between learning physics, and learning ABOUT physics. You are confusing the two.

    Furthermore, the physics curriculum, as it is, is already chokeful of a variety of subject matter that a student has to learn. One has to make sure the student has a solid foundation of physics before embarking on learning about physics. Besides, one can argue for the same towards those learning about physics. Why don't they also spend time learning physics? They ".. will understand it better...", rather than just some superficial idea of what physics is and then telling the rest of us to understand about something "fundamental", as if they know what they're talking about.

    Zz.
     
Share this great discussion with others via Reddit, Google+, Twitter, or Facebook