Friday, September 4, 2009

Teaching Physics

For those of you unfamiliar with the name David Griffiths, he's a physics professor at Reed College and the author of two (that I know of) text books: Introduction to Electrodynamics and Introduction to Quantum Mechanics. His E&M book is considered the gold standard for undergraduates and his Quantum book is very nearly as highly regarded. His books are clear, straightforward, and even a little humorous. Griffiths is also a highly regarded lecturer. I lived in Portland OR (home to Reed College) for a year and sincerely regret that I never took the time to attend a lecture of his.

In any case, a good friend of mine posted an article on Facebook that was written by Griffiths. In it, he talks about teaching physics. Here are a few of my favorite outtakes:

"ours is a subject the relevance and importance of which are beyond question, and which is intrinsically fascinating to anyone whose mind has not been corrupted by bad teaching or poisoned by dogma and superstition"

"...rolling a ball down an incline is emphatically not tedious and dull. Take a closer look at the classical theory of rolling: why does a sphere roll faster than a hoop, and exactly how much faster?"

"Learning physics is hard, and it can be frustrating; there is no point in concealing this or (far worse) watering it down in a futile attempt to make the subject more marketable. Serious students relish a genuine challenge; they do not like being coddled, patronized or made to feel stupid, and they resent meaningless hurdles – tedious lab sessions, plug-in problems, trick questions, unfair examinations and confusing explanations."

"I believe every educated person should study physics. Why? Because it is interesting – the natural world is a remarkable and fascinating place; because it is liberating – the universe is not arbitrary, but rational and comprehensible; and because physics is unequivocally the most powerful and profound system of thought ever devised."

Yes! Yes! Yes! Every paragraph I read got me more excited. I couldn't agree more with pretty much everything he said. I love physics, and I love teaching it (though it's been more than 3 years now since I was in a classroom). The unfortunate thing about physics is that it has been so susceptible to bad teaching and superstition. K-12 aged students eat science up, but high school students quake at the thought of taking physics, without even knowing exactly what physics is! Those who brave it, and are fortunate enough to have a good teacher, find that physics IS intrinsically interesting and relevant. It can be challenging, but it is not impossible for anyone. And it's not all math. (I actually has someone ask me once if physics could be considered a sub-field of math!) I wish everyone had to take physics. And, I would add to Griffiths' list about why students should study physics something my husband always brings up. Understanding physics (and all sciences) helps us to be better citizens, to make better choices about matters involving science. Stem cells, evolution, the LHC (it's not really going to blow us all to bits!) -- how many people weighing in on these issues really understand what they're talking about?


Joseph Smidt said...

Yes, Griffiths is amazing. He also has in introduction to particle physics book that lives up to the reputation of his others: Clear, fun and an excellent introduction to a often difficult subject aimed at the undergraduate level.

daisy mae said...

this is exactly how i felt about physics when i finally *got* it. i dropped out of physics in high school, and was dreading it in college. i had a phenomenal professor who started each class with a demonstration, came up with fascinating, involved labs, and was extremely diligent about keeping his students on top of the subject matter. i started slipping after my first few weeks, and he was available for hours every week to help me work through the concepts - and once i got them, physics opened up a whole new world for me. i even designed an independent study in 'biological physics', which later propelled me into grad school. where i've subsequently been utterly disappointed at how few people are interested in an interdisciplinary approach to science. *sigh*.