Sunday, August 8, 2010

Teaching Physics, Communicating Complexity in Science

Physics is math-y.  That's just how it is.

But it isn't just math.  It's actually much more logical problem solving.  And the kind of math a high level physicist needs is less how to do percents in your head (cause by god, I suck at that), but how to do algebra and calculus, even more fundamentally, how to look at equations as representative symbols, rather than what numbers they are, and how those symbols can be changed around, substituted for each other, and put into statements that say things about the world.

There are many ways to approach the subject of teaching or communicating physics.  The most obvious approach is just to teach it, the students who can do the problems will, the ones who stumble over logic or algebra or trigonometry will struggle, the ones who are scared away by the "calculus" requirement will just be scared away.  There must be integrity within the discipline, after all.  Another approach is to take the math of out it, or at least the scary word "calculus", teach the laws of physics as sort of factoids that you should know--and in the process remove a good bit of what it means to actually do physics.  For people who aren't concerned with eventually doing physics, that is probably fine.  For people who just want to learn about it or need to sort of know what is going on, this is fine too.

But it is harder to really know things this way, because you're just being handed something, and easy to think that those physicists are just crazy smart cause they figured this stuff out.  Well, they did figure things out that weren't obvious, but they had tools.

Some physics you can dance around just fine.  Introductory physics is usually that, although still, students have a hard time figuring out which iteration of which equation to use in which situation because they were just handed some equations and have no bearing on how the symbols relate to reality. You can figure it out pretty easily when you are leaning about objects falling and forces pushing blocks across ice, because you've spent a great deal of your life watching objects fall and forces pushing things, but when you start to get into eletroweirdness charged particle land this gets harder, and by the time you start falling down the relativity-->quantum--->wtf eightfold way particle physics-->cosmology rabbit hole, math is utterly indispensable to *true* understanding.  The factoids are just too weird:  magnetic force felt by a particle in a magnetic field is perpendicular to the direction of the field.  Uh...okay.  The Higgs boson will reveal how particles get their mass. Wait, what? Why would it?  How will that work?  Why should that conclusion be in any way obvious to me?  Well it shouldn't, because I haven't ever had reason to observer anything to do with that, and it has no discernible bearing on the world I occupy.  People who say they understand quantum mechanics perfectly, they just don't get the math, are full of male cow excretion.  Quantum mechanics IS math, with when done correctly has revealed things to us about the universe that have been experimentally verified.  You can buy that what the experiments reveal to you is true, (and you should!) but unless you had the kind of imagination that would suggest well *obviously* an electron has this amorphous property called spin and that only two electrons and with opposite spin at that can occupy one amorphous concept called an "orbital, which will obviously be shaped like either a sphere, dumbbell, coverleaf, or several other complicated iterations of lobed blobs, unless all of those conclusions could have been deduced from empirical observation then you don't understand why it is did that without math.  Max Planck first noticed that light is a particle because an equation he was tweaking to try to describe light worked out that way, and he thought, "That can't be right, I've done something wrong!" Because light being a wave and a particle too was nonsensical.  (But true, and you are also a wave.  More on this in a later entry.)

When teachers or science writers try to make that kind of stuff accessible to the layman, they are spouting factoids, not processes. The factoids are interesting, but the process, in the case of something as math-y is physics, is largely inaccessible to those without a couple of years of college level math.  So if you read a sensational string theory article or hear a physics lecture and go "wtf", that's an acceptable reaction that by itself has no bearing on your lack of intelligence compared to the people presenting the information to you.  You lack the tool that brought the discoverers of this information to the information, that tool being advanced mathematics. If you are a biology student or a layman who is just interested in this stuff, you may not have time, resources, or intest enough to spend a couple of years aquiring that math. People who studied physics heard this stuff and went "wtf" too--they were just so intrigued they dedicated years of their life to acquiring the tools to make sense of it.

When communicating science, is communicating the process important?  I think it is, even if it can only be a sense of the process, a small slice of the sense of wonder that kept the perpetrators of new information interested.  If that process involves a great deal of math--I postulated yesterday that math angst is a large factor in math ability and thus tolerance of being told mathematical concepts. I'm not proposing that science writers teach calculus in the process of explaining physics, because that would take way too much time and wordspace, and you'd be re-inventing the wheel anew if you did it every time.  Readers aren't interested in that, anyway. So you are going to have to sacrifice on details and process to get the meat across.  Describing math in qualitative terms is also, in my opinion, dangerous territory, because some brains (mine, anyway) find wading through sentences a heck of a lot more difficult than just looking at an equation, which says the same thing.  I already have the tools though, but even if I didn't, wordy-math is confusing.

But if you can give a glimmer of the process, somehow, an accesible glimmer of the underlying logic or complexity (and be correct, not mis-interpreting sutblety, which is a common error in reporting things like quantum mechanics which is rife with mathematical subtlety)... you've accomplished a great feat of science writing or of teaching.  You have invited your listener to be a participator, in a sense, not just a consumer of information.

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