Funny, it is.
Archive for the 'Education' Category
Lots of good advice and insight. I can add this: a PhD (in physics, at least) generally allows you an opportunity to work on more interesting problems. As Ethan notes, glory and money are not usually the outcome of the degree. One should also note that you still spend 80% (or more) of the time doing mundane things. It’s the remaining 20% that has to be worthwhile to you.
There is certainly a problem, but when it reaches the level of elected officials it has gone beyond a problem of literacy. I’d venture to say that Paul Broun being Chairman of the US House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is not so much illiteracy as bordering on the abdication of responsibility on the part of the GOP. That someone like this could be elected is surely a symptom of the illiteracy in the US, but brings with it a whole new level of problems.
When elected officials, the very people we ask to lead our country, are ignorant of how the world works, how can our country be expected to survive much longer?
Also, I can’t help but think that if meteor impacts had been brought up as a point of discussion a few weeks ago, there would have been a backlash of anti-science opposition, attacking the science and scientists involved and accusations of fear-mongoring. (Now, of course, there’s a possibility of an overreaction and advocation of programs that will be nothing but safety theater.) There seems to be a tendency to deny there is any problem until it has reached a crisis level.
For the second time in the past month, Minute Physics is making a statement about what gets taught in introductory physics. It is consistent, but I still disagree. I have had too many interactions with people who want to discuss relativity (or quantum mechanics) and are either very confused or think its wrong, and this is exacerbated because they have no familiarity with classical physics.
I have no problem with telling students that what they are going to learn in introductory physics is an approximation, but the claim that presenting Newton’s gravitation equation is akin to telling students that the earth is flat is an exaggeration. If you go down that path, then what of all the other approximations that we make in physics? Speaking of a flat vs curved earth, do you really want to force students to solve trajectory problems on a curved surface rather than flat one? Is a frictionless surface a lie, or is it a convenient approximation to simplify a problem? And, on the topic of friction, should we really delve into the morass that is friction, rather than just say that it’s proportional to the normal force and try and get the big picture across?
I think the objections are wrong in a few different ways — One of the principles you learn in solving problems is how to ignore complications that do not affect the answer to the question. Also, learning physics through to relativity and other advanced topics takes years of study. Introductory classes carry with them the need to prune the information to fit, and convey the material that is most important to the students’ needs. Most of them don’t need to learn about relativity, which is why it’s not part of the introductory classes.
Chad does a nice job of addressing the issue raised in a Minute-Physics video. Frankly, I thought the video was uncharacteristically naive about this particular subject.
The fact that these courses are service courses first and foremost constrains what we can teach. And much as we might wish it were otherwise, the engineering and chemistry departments don’t particular want us to teach the cool modern stuff. They want us to teach old physics from 1865, because that serves as the foundation for some of their courses. We have to teach classical mechanics first because that’s what the departments that provide most of our students want us to teach.
And, of course, foundational for more physics, as well. It’s tough to talk about things like energy and momentum in advanced discussions if the students don’t know about energy and momentum. Can you discuss what a laser is and does at 8 O’clock on day one of an introductory physics class? It’d be fun to talk about how one might do that, but I’m not seeing how we get there. It’s almost like saying “let’s go read some neat books, because that’s fun, but let’s skip over all that boring vocabulary that we spend years developing”. Like most interesting books, quantum mechanics requires more than a third-grade level of reading ability.
The thing is, I see this same issue quite a bit on the science discussion board that hosts this blog — Science Forums (dot net). People show up wanting to discuss neat new things they’ve heard about, or even propose some new model of how things work, but have no clue about the basics — meaning they don’t understand what’s going on in the article, or why their proposal won’t work, and don’t get the objections people raise.
“We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”
That is such a great story.
It’s the time of year for the Donors Choose fundraiser drive, a charity I support. As I’ve done in the past, here are some links from fellow physics/astronomy blogs.
You can pick a project or simply donate and let Donors Choose pick one.
I recognized long ago that it’s important to have a full life that includes a lot more than just my scientific interests for my physical and mental health and well-being. Which is why I’m absolutely livid over this letter, circulated in a top astronomy department (which — I cannot prove — but I believe I once worked at), reproduced in its entirety, with my commentary, below.
I routinely worked >60-hour weeks in grad school, or at least I was at school for at least 60 hours a week — there was always some late-night decompression (hall golf or some game on the computer). In at 11 and leave for home after midnight was routine for the lab, with breaks for meals, and then additional time the weekends. (I did a few 80+ hour stints as a postdoc at TRIUMF, because when you have beam time, you run the experiment 24/7.) I also got the “this isn’t a 40-hour a week job” lecture once, during a rough patch when I was “only” putting in about that amount. But I also got time to myself to have a little bit of a life — limited to what you might have on a grad student stipend. This letter is over the line, unless the purpose is to drive people entirely from the field.
A couple of posts relating to gender issues in physics that I have run across recently.
To test scientist’s reactions to men and women with precisely equal qualifications, the researchers did a randomized double-blind study in which academic scientists were given application materials from a student applying for a lab manager position. The substance of the applications were all identical, but sometimes a male name was attached, and sometimes a female name.
Results: female applicants were rated lower than men on the measured scales of competence, hireability, and mentoring (whether the scientist would be willing to mentor this student). Both male and female scientists rated the female applicants lower.
*Sigh* For whatever reason I’m having trouble accessing the actual article, so I don’t know if they show how much worse this might be than in general (assuming that there is gender bias elsewhere, and I’m pretty sure there is), and if there is an age component, i.e. is this more of a problem with older folks, who might soon be removing themselves from being part of the problem. However, that’s a small and faint hope, having observed some of the attitudes displayed in some corners of the internets and in the blogohedron, where presumably the age bias might be in the other direction. I recognize that certain types of change might occur on generational time scales, but it’s 2012, and we (well, women, actually) are still dealing with crap like this.
The second post deals with wondering why women stay, and why they drop out of the physics pipeline.
I want to know WHY the percentage of women in physics going down. Right now there is a ton of support for women entering physics. We have conferences and mentorship programs all over the nation. But one crucial voice is missing: the women who dropped out of the physics major, and the women who majored in physics but chose to not go on to graduate school. I write this blog because I want to hear from the women who chose not to continue in physics. They are the ones who can shed the true insight! I also want to hear from women who did continue in physics. What made you pick physics, and what made you stay?
(Sorry, it’s politics-induced spleenvent time)
For all his wealth, Mitt Romney can’t buy a clue. If you live in the US and not under a rock, you’ve probably heard by now, what Mitt Romney said at a fundraiser about the roughly 47% of people who pay no federal income taxes.
There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it — that that’s an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what. … These are people who pay no income tax. … [M]y job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.
Most full-time students don’t make enough to pay federal income tax, so they are included in that 47%. If you are a student and don’t pay federal income tax, Mitt Romney thinks that you are not taking personal responsibility and care for you life. Let that sink in for a moment — pursuing higher education, to him, means you aren’t trying to care for your life. It’s not a responsible thing to do. If you have to take out a loan and get some federal assistance with that, like a low interest rate, you’re a mooch. A loser.
On top of all this is the math-challenged implication that he thinks that this 47% is a static group of people — nobody moves in or out each year, depending on their circumstances — and that it’s the same 47% that support Obama. These victims, these entitlement freeloaders, none of whom take personal responsibility and for their lives. You students. You, who paid into social security all your life and are now retired. You, who got crushed by the economic situation Obama inherited, or devastated by not being able to get insurance, and ended up not paying income tax. You’re irresponsible, and not worth the candidate’s time or representation, should he be elected. He doesn’t want you, and doesn’t want to be your president.
Refreshing to read a piece on this subject that doesn’t simply assume that a non-academic career equates to failure, and acknowledges that one might pursue an advanced degree for reasons other than a fatter paycheck.
Interesting discussion on how learning physics (or science in general) needs to be more like athletes playing football, in terms of all the preparation that goes on before the game.