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The wall of physics—and how to tear it down

November 19, 2010

This is a great post by Melissa Arjendu, author of Confused at a Higher Level.

It reposts this quote from a 1989 article by Ken Ford:

Physics is difficult in the same way that all serious intellectual effort is difficult. Solid understanding of English literature, or economics, or history, or music, or biology – or physics – does not come without hard work. But we typically act on the assumption (and argue to our principals and deans) that ours is a discipline that only a few are capable of comprehending. The priesthood syndrome that flows from this assumption is, regrettably, seductive . . . If physics is not more difficult than other disciplines, why does everyone think that it is? To answer indirectly, let me turn again to English. Six-year-olds write English and (to pick a skilled physicist writer) Jeremy Bernstein writes English. What separates them? A long, gradual incline of increased ability, understanding, and practice. Some few people, illiterates, do not start up the hill. Most people climb some distance. A few climb as far as Bernstein. FOR PHYSICS, ON THE OTHER HAND, WE HAVE FASHIONED A CLIFF. THERE IS NO GRADUAL RAMP, ONLY A NEAR-VERTICAL ASCENT TO ITS HIGH PLATEAU. . . . . When the cliff is encountered for the first time by. . . (14- or) . . . 16- or 17-year olds, it is small wonder that only a few have courage (and the skill) to climb it. There is no good reason for this difference of intellectual topography.

And she also linked to an incredible interview with Richard Muller, UC Berkeley Physics Professor who teaches the incredible Physics for Future Presidents, and published the bestselling book of the same name. If you haven’t seen Muller’s Course, you can listen to the entire thing (multiple years even) on itunes. The lectures are amazing, a must listen for every physics teacher or just people who would like to know some really interesting things about the role physics cool questions like, why can’t you build a spy satellite capable of reading a newspaper.


This has me thinking about the need to reform at the intro physics course we teach, and possibly even the honors course. Why do we need to make kids run the math gauntlet to get to tackle really big questions like the following.

I’ve been really intrigued by all the controversy over all the new body scanners being deployed by the TSA. It’s generated a letter of concern from some faculty at UCSF (pdf) a calculation that the chance of dying from cancer due to backscatter radiation is equal to the risk of dying in a hijacking , and a great series of tweets by @physcistlisa debunking the whole thing.

Here’s the assignment for my hypothetical physics class: read these documents and write a letter of recommendation to the TSA regarding the risks of backscatter radiation exposure.

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