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Uncertain Principles

Physics, Politics, Pop Culture

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Links Dump

There will very likely be exciting developments in blogdom sometime early next week. Until then, some miscellaneous links to help pass the time:

And that's about enough of that.

Posted at 9:35 AM | link | follow-ups | 1 comment

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Science is Utterly Wet

Posting has been (relatively) light this week because today was the first day of classes. I'm teaching introductory modern physics (relativity and quantum mechanics), a class that I've taught before, but I've been putting a significant amount of time into revising my lecture notes, to keep the class from getting stale.

This has led to a reduction in blogging because I've been preoccupied with educational matters. Happily, PZ Myers comes along with a post about education. It's one of those chain-letter sort of posts, starting with an op-ed by Olivia Judson with some unkind words about high school biology:

Biology was a subject that seemed as exciting as a clump of cotton wool. It was a dreary exercise in the memorization and regurgitation of apparently unconnected facts. Only later did I learn about evolution and how it transforms biology from that mass of cotton wool into a magnificent tapestry, a tapestry we can contemplate and begin to understand.

This was picked up by Tara Smith at Aetiology, who adds:

I think I've mentioned before that this my high school bio class was like this as well--lots of memorization, a good dose of anatomy, but no emphasis on evolution to tie it all together. In fact, I thought biology was boring before I took an intro course in college. I'm happy to admit I was totally wrong (something I don't do very often!).

Finally, PZ chimes in with:

I didn't think biology was boring, but I sure thought my biology class in high school was a waste of time. It was almost as bad as that mandatory health class taught by one of the coaches (who clearly hated being there) that was little more than a study hall with pamphlets. My biology teacher wasn't a bad guy—actually, he was likable and interesting as a person—but the class content was a dogawful bore. My daughter says similar things about her biology course right now.

That has me wondering: how many of you have had similar experiences with the public school teaching of biology? Could this be where the US is going wrong, treating biology as a subject that is drained of life by a stamp-collecting approach to reciting facts and details?

I am not by any stretch a biologist (though I enjoyed high school biology, thanks to a very talented teacher). As a physics professor, though, I can tell you that this problem is not confined to biology: lots of people say the same thing about high school physics.

In the case of physics, the missing unifying concept is calculus. When you try to teach algebra-based physics, you inevitably lose a bunch of the natural connections that are obvious in a calulus-based class. If you know calculus, there's a seamless connection between the idea of constant acceleration and the equation

x(t)=xi + vit + 1/2 a t2

Without calculus to tie everything together, kinematics becomes a bunch of different equations that you just have to memorize.

I think the problem goes a little beyond just the question of mathematics, though. High school physics classes too often rely on "plug-and-chug" problems, where you're given the force and the mass and asked to find the acceleration. This is very far away from the reality of college physics (let alone grad school), where the game is less about plugging numbers into formulae than interpreting complex physical situation to determine how best to describe a given situation mathematically-- sometimes by using a standard formula, sometimes by generating a new and different equation.

I think there are two main results of this-- I'm sure of one, and I suspect there's a second. The effect that I know for sure exists is that we get a lot of students coming into college thinking they're good at physics when they don't have any idea what physics is about. What they're good at is memorization and the manipulation of set equations, and that's not physics.

You can spot those students in the intro classes, because they struggle mightily with dynamics problems-- all those damn frictionless blocks sliding on frictionless planes connected by massles ropes over frictionless pulleys. Again and again I get asked "What equation do we use for this?," and the answer is always the same: "F = ma." Those aren't problems that can be solved by rote memorization-- each problem is slightly different, and there's no finite set of equations that can cover all of them. What they require is knowledge of the essential concepts that let you break a complicated problem down into a few simple equations.

Many of those students did well in high school physics, but they tend not to go far with the subject in college. They end up in some other field (engineering, chemistry, and economics are the big winners-- make of that what you will).

The second effect, that I can't be sure is real, is that students who would be good physics majors get turned off of the subject in high school, because they're bored by plug-and-chug memorization. It's hard to tell if this actually happens, because obviously, we tend not to see those students, but I think there's a lesser version of this effect visible in our introductory classes-- freshman mechanics can be deadly dull, and I think we lose some potential physicists as a result. A lot of people who say "I hated physics when I took it" hated a bastard version of the subject, that doesn't bear much resemblance to what actual physicists do on a daily basis. It's easy to hate a subject when it's taught badly.

This extends beyond physics-- the Regents exam in Chemistry when I was in high school was a joke-- and there are some systematic reasons for it. It's hard to get people with a good science background to teach public school, but a chimpanzee can teach rote memorization. And plug-and-chug problems are readily adapted to standardized tests, while good conceptual questions are pretty hard to write.

The situation is improving-- as noted in a previous post, there are lots of groups actively researching physics education, and there's been a push to improve teaching at all levels with a variety of innovative techniques. There's a group of local high school physics teachers that have a couple of meetings a year on our campus, and they're dedicated people working to really get at the concepts, and go beyond simple memorization. But it's hard work, and more needs to be done.

Posted at 7:51 PM | link | follow-ups | 12 comments

Monday, January 02, 2006

The New York Times Says God Is Dead

As you can tell from the date stamp, it's now 2006, so the World Year of Physics is over. The people behind Quantum Diaries are shutting their blog collection down (though several of the diarists will be continuing on their own sites), and John "End of Science" Horgan pops up in the Times book section to say that there will never be another Einstein:

Einstein is far and away the most famous and beloved scientist of all time. We revere him not only as a scientific genius but also as a moral and even spiritual sage whose enduring aphorisms touch on matters from the sublime ("Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind") to the playful ("Gravity cannot be blamed for people falling in love"). Roughly 500 books about Einstein are in print, including at least a dozen published in the last year. Authors sometimes seem to compete with each other in the lavishness of their praise. Abraham Pais, Einstein's friend and biographer, called him "the divine man of the 20th century." To Dennis Overbye, author of "Einstein in Love," he was "an icon" of "humanity in the face of the unknown." In "God in the Equation," Corey Powell hailed Einstein as the "prophet" of "sci/religion," a spiritual path of revelation based on reason.

So, to rephrase my original question: will there ever be a second coming of Einstein? I have my doubts, but not because I think no modern physicists can match Einstein's intellectual gifts.

So, why are we doomed to languish in the wilderness without a prophet? It's all the fault of those pesky string theorists:

...Einstein seems bigger than modern physicists because - to paraphrase the silent-film diva Norma Desmond in "Sunset Boulevard" - physics got small. For the first half of the last century, physics yielded not only deep insights into nature - which resonated with the disorienting work of creative visionaries like Picasso, Joyce and Freud - but also history-jolting technologies like the atomic bomb, nuclear power, radar, lasers, transistors and all the gadgets that make up the computer and communications industries. Physics mattered.

Today, government spending on physics research has stagnated, and the number of Americans pursuing doctorates has plunged to its lowest level since the early 1960's. Especially as represented by best sellers like "A Brief History of Time," by Stephen Hawking, and "The Elegant Universe," by Brian Greene, physics has also become increasingly esoteric, if not downright escapist. Many of physics' best and brightest are obsessed with fulfilling a task that occupied Einstein's latter years: finding a "unified theory" that fuses quantum physics and general relativity, which are as incompatible, conceptually and mathematically, as plaid and polka dots. But pursuers of this "theory of everything" have wandered into fantasy realms of higher dimensions with little or no empirical connection to our reality. In his new book "Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond," the physicist Lawrence Krauss frets that his colleagues' belief in hyperspace theories in spite of the lack of evidence will encourage the insidious notion that science "is merely another kind of religion."

I heard Horgan speak about his book, The End of Science, and he often gets a bad rap for that. Lots of people respond to that book by arguing against claims that he doesn't actually make. What he actually argues (at least in person) is much more limited, and easier to defend than the inflammatory nonsense that people attribute to him-- I'm not sure he's right, but the real argument at least isn't transparently idiotic.

This piece, on the other hand, is just kind of silly.

I don't disagree that cutting-edge physics has become more esoteric since Einstein's day, sometimes to the point of incomprehensibility, but I'm not convinced that has anything to do with the lack of a "new Einstein" in the public imagination. Even at the height of his celebrity, relativity was famously incomprehensible-- that's part of the mystique, after all. And the modern scientist who comes closest to Einstein's iconic stature (in the sense of being instantly recognizable as a famous scientist) is probably Stephen Hawking, and even his popular book is completely opaque. It didn't stop him from selling a bazillion copies.

But a bigger problem with the whole thesis is that it seems to take the emergence of a "new Einstein" as something we ought to expect. I don't think we have any right to expect there to be a "new Einstein"-- in fact, I don't think we had any right to expect the first one.

I mean, look at his contemporaries in physics. People like Bohr, and Heisenberg, and Dirac, and Fermi are towering figures in 20th Century physics (you could make a case that in some ways, they're more influential, given Einstein's rejection of quantum theory) and nobody in the general public knows anything about them. Going back farther, Newton is arguably a much more important figure than Einstein, and the man on the street has only the sketchiest idea about what he did.

Or look at other sciences-- is there an Einstein-level iconic figure in chemistry or biology? I can't think of one. Horgan talks about Francis Crick, who certainly played a part in revolutionizing biology, but I couldn't begin to tell you what he looked like, or quote any of his sayings. Even in the more applied fields, there isn't anyone of Einstein's stature-- Alexander Fleming and Jonas Salk probably did at least as much to shape the world we live in as Einstein did, and nobody's selling posters of them.

"Well, yeah," you might say (particularly if you were John Horgan), "but Einstein was more than just a brilliant scientist. He's also known for contributions in other areas." I have a two-word answer for that argument: Linus Pauling. He's got two Nobel Prizes, one of them in Peace. And yet, he's nowhere near the iconic status of Einstein.

Why does Einstein loom so large in the public imagination? I have no idea. But here's a related question: Why are the Beatles so popular?

I mean, sure, they were prodigiously talented songwriters, and great performers, but there have been lots of talented songwriters and performers before and since, and none of them got to be, you know, the Beatles. What is it that John, Paul, George, and Ringo had that made them blow up to the degree that they did?

I don't think you can say why Einstein is such a huge figure in the public imagination, for the same reason that I don't think you can explain why the Beatles were such huge figures in pop music. It's some complicated mix of talent, personal charisma, the right set of sociopolitical factors, and sheer dumb luck. There's no simple explanation for why the Beatles became such a gigantic international sensation, and there's no simple explanation for why Einstein got to be, well, Einstein. It's some weird emergent phenomenon arising from the spooky interactions of millions of people having their own quirky reactions to things.

And given that, I don't think there can be any rational expectation of getting a second Einstein. The first one was one of those one-of-a-kind, lightning-in-a-bottle events, and there's no sensible reason to expect it to happen again. And thus, it makes no sense to hold the lack of a "new Einstein" against science in general.

The important thing here is that science keeps moving forward. People keep doing new experiments, keep developing new theories, keep discovering amazing new things-- pick up the year-end issue of your favorite science magazine, and odds are you'll find a big list of working scientists who did mind-blowing things in the last twelve months. It's foolish to belittle their accomplishments by saying "Well, they're no Einstein." We should stop looking for the next Einstein, and be thankful for the one we have.

Posted at 1:40 PM | link | follow-ups | 13 comments

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