Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Why study physics?

Somehow that can render visions of the horror of mathematics and funky experiments. This is somewhat of a misdirected question in that all who study physics don't have to be physicists: It can be a personal adventure, it can be an auxiliary to another area of science such as nuclear chemistry or archaeology or even the humanities such as art or literature...or even a career in the realm of hardcore physics. Sometimes people fear the study of physics because they are intimidated by the complexity or if they are comfortable with the mathematics they may become disappointed because they do not become a Newton or an Einstein. They are exceptional individuals and are indeed rare and should not be a benchmark for the progression in the acquisition of the knowledge of physics. Sometimes the understanding of fundamental physics minus the formulas can supply a better understanding of the environment and application of the laws of physics such as knowing that an extension on an adjustable pipe wrench can increase the torque and loosen the bolt or that boiling water in a cooking pot can quickly be reduced by the addition of some salt. It can also provide the individual with information to distinguish fact from fiction--lying down on a bed of nails or walking on hot coals. And an acquaintance with the disciplines of the scientific method can allow one to become more critical of observations and decision making.

I even heard on a National Public Radio interview not long ago that there may be another aspect of physics providing a life of fulfillment and that is, if making lots and lots of money and doing specialized analysis is an individual's goal, then apply for a job in the "stock market". A statistical fact was revealed that surprised me; that being, that over 50% of "new hires" in the realm of Wall Street come from the realm of physics and engineering. So if a research group won't let you split an atom...go to Wall Street and split stocks and probably make a whole lot more money.

Heather Rock Woods, a SLAC science writer and Symmetry staff writer, wrote this:

"I learned calculus in kindergarten. Or I should have. Whenever I needed help in high school calculus, I tried every avenue before turning to Dad, because he inevitably (or so I remember) criticized my long-term memory. You learned that in kindergarten," he would chastise.

My dad, the nuclear physicist. Nuclear as in understanding the nucleus of the atom, I always explained to my friends, not as in the scary duck-and-cover," mushroom-cloud nuclear. My brother and I, and our hapless schoolfriends, learned about protons, neutrons, quarks, and gluons from a tender age.

Growing up in a physics household was actually tons of fun-even though we couldn't use the word tons" unless we literally meant 4000-plus pounds of something. Thanks to my parents' love of adventure and the international nature of the high-energy physics community, my formative years weren't just about math and precision. I was born in Berkeley at the time that my dad,

Steve Rock, was finishing his thesis for his advisor, Nobel laureate Owen Chamberlain (which impressed me, if not my playground pals). Before arriving in England for my dad's post- doctoral job, we traveled through Europe in a tiny orange car. The photos show a fuzzy-headed me held up in front of the monument of the day: the Roman Forum ruins, the Eiffel Tower, the Alps, Hadrian's Wall.

We settled in Appleton, a rural hamlet near the Daresbury lab. There I acquired a brother, an English accent (long since gone), and a memory of being stung by bees at the blackberry patch down the lane. Three years later we moved to Meyrin, the Geneva suburb then favored by young CERN visitors. My only physics memories of that time involve visiting the computer room (and it took a whole room to house the behemoth), and drawing on the punch cards used to program the computer.

We relocated to SLAC when I was six. On Saturday afternoon visits to the lab, my dad stationed us at terminals in the computer room next to his office, where we typed letters to our grandfather-thrilling stuff in the days before PCs. The printouts, perforated sheets with holes on the edges, also made good drawing paper.

My brother and I loved visiting the Counting House during an experiment, when doughnuts abounded. Jumbles of cables snaked along the floor under instrument crates with metal switches and analog dials, winding through holes in the floor to the massive experimental hall below. It seemed a miracle that this apparently cobbled-together ensemble produced cutting-edge results.

I'm now surprised when I encounter shiny copper cavities or polished stainless steel parts. It somehow feels like cheating to use gleaming new apparatus rather than dusty cables and old-fashioned oscilloscopes.

I spent the rest of my childhood within twelve miles of SLAC, but we had the world at our fingertips. My dad's graduate students and collaborators came from Iran, Greece, the Midwest (almost like another country when you grow up in a West-Coast household), Russia, Switzerland, France, and Poland. We took a Russian researcher backpacking in the days before the Cold War thawed, and he ate most of our food on the first day of the trip, ecstatic with the quantity and quality of food available to Americans without waiting in line.

Over far-flung dinner conversations covering politics, sport, art, music, science, and religion, with generous helpings of humor, it was always clear to my brother and me that physicists are far more than nerds. Yes, my dad repaired his glasses with tape sometimes, and had used a slide rule in high school, but he never used a pocket protector for his ever-handy pocketful of pens, and he's always had a simultaneous passion for opera and the Rolling Stones.

Now my kids are repeating the experiment: I'm married to a SLAC physicist. Last year, we traveled to Europe for two physics conferences; the photo album shows our kids in front of the Eiffel Tower and the Alps. I can use 'tons' freely, but I have to watch out for 'couple' (two), 'few' (three) and 'several' (four), or our indoctrinated five-year-old corrects me. I usually claim literary license-which might be why I became a writer."

Here are four samples of Heather's skills:

"BABAR Find New Massive Particle"

"Placed under X-ray gaze, Archimedes manuscript yields secrets lost to time"

"SSRL’s New Robotic System Helps Stanford Researchers Reveal Cells’ Inner Workings"

"X-ray Blaze on an Invisible World"

And, Stewart E. Brekke wrote a letter to "Physics Today" and may well be a benchmark for getting students interested in physics.

"Educating Students to Appreciate Physics"
Stewart E. Brekke

"After several years of decline, the number of physics BA degrees awarded by colleges and universities has leveled off (see Physics Today, March 2000, page 68), and high-school enrollments are increasing somewhat. However, we can improve on these figures. My experience as a physics teacher suggests that it is the high-school course that generates the college and university enrollments in physics. In many US high schools, only the upper 20% or so of the student population takes physics. The rest are often excluded by either the unnecessary rigor of a course that emphasizes theory and questioning rather than tools and problem solving, or by poor performance on standardized tests. This exclusion leads directly to lower physics enrollments in higher education.

In some school districts--for example, New York City and Chicago--physics and chemistry are required high-school courses. Student populations in these urban schools are often considered to be at risk. However, I have taught in urban schools with mostly African American and Hispanic students, and my experience is that minority and other at-risk students can do well in a basic physics course with the standard mathematical components. Students need drills and practices so that, with individual help from the teacher, they can use a formula and solve for a variable, use scientific notation, take and analyze data, and understand how to do simple modeling.

In the past, high-school physics texts were badly written, often emphasizing "thinking," while lacking problem-solving examples and the drills that might have helped inexperienced students. Almost any student can solve even a difficult and advanced physics problem if an example is given or if the teacher provides individual help. Making students struggle with a problem without first giving them the basic tools to solve it discourages many who are capable and interested.

By making the high-school course more user-friendly and more applicable without sacrificing quality of content, we will generate more students taking physics at all levels of instruction. Motivated students will then encourage their friends to take physics. More teaching positions will result and fewer physicists will be lost to other professions."

A small drawback...

When does an "obsession" become pathological? Some people become so wrapped in one focused area of interest or study and blind to the richness of overlapping disciplines. I'm not necessarily talking about collecting or knowing everything there is to know about the history of auto racing, for example, but the area, that is quite predominate today in science, whereby specialization is defeating not only within the venue of the specific area of science study but the total ignorance of many overlapping areas of knowledge. That includes not only the science but the arts. Physics is fine and so is a liberal education and recognition of a multiplicity of other sources of knowledge. I know several specialized physicists that don't know anything about the history of physics and can't even compose a decent paragraph--something so essential in communication and expression of an individual's thoughts. Study physics but have a liberal education too.


Timray said...

I think that one not need to delve into physics to the point of mathematics to appreciate what physics brings to human understanding. I remember Murray Gell-Mann's book as well as a few others that enlarged my appreciation of the inner workings of the invisible universe. It is a beauty to be appreciated and develops an awe of life. Certainly Einstein caught my attention first in his natural philosphy toward life before i began to grasp(if i do) some of his deeper thoughts. Over my desk are 4 large posters of him with his memorable thoughts. I also love his ability to take the concept of "God" to a new understanding and appreciate his Spinoza understanding which I believe Twain also held.....yes one can love physics without its fullest grasp

Mercury said...

Yes, Murray Gell-Mann is still living and a "quarky" guy with a rich history in particle physics and author of a cool popular science book "The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex" whose title came from "The world of the quark has everything to do with a jaguar circling in the night" by Arthur Sze.

Kaz Maslanka said...

I took Physics purely in anticipation for inspiration for my artwork. It changed my life (and my artwork)


Mercury said...

Kaz Maslanka:

Would you provide a verbal example or two of how the study of physics influences your art work? And how did it change your life?

Kaz Maslanka said...

My earlier artwork occupied my thoughts with transformations of experience into visual language. Primarily these transformations were transformations of an aural experience into a visual language (an empirical synesthesia if you will). Furthermore I have always had a fascination with the mysterious and it manifested itself with me studying surrealist art and theory.
Then in 1979 I stumbled across a book about physics masquerading as a book about the similarities between eastern mysticism and the “new physics”. I was blown away for the mystery in physics rivaled the surrealist philosophies that I had previously studied. It was at that moment that I knew I had to study physics. This was pretty frightening for an artist who swore off mathematics as a waste of time and suffered failing grades in high school mathematics. However, I soon realized that my problem was not mathematics, it was my attitude. As I took algebra and trigonometry it dawned on me that the variables in an equation were concepts related by the rules of the syntax within the mathematical system. Furthermore, I asked the question why can I not use the language of mathematics for connotation or poetry. Why can I not mix the beauty of mathematics with the beauty of art? I soon after created a small body of work in the early 1980’s however, It never excited enough people to convince me that it was of any value. It continued to nag me into the 1990’s until I developed enough delusions of grandeur to sustain the energy to continue pushing the ideas. I am amazed at where it has taken me. Unfortunately there is still very little interest in ‘mathematical poetry’. You can see what I am doing at my blog http://mathematicalpoetry.blogspot.com
Thanks for your interest!

Mercury said...

Kaz Maslanka:

Do check out Worthy Science Sources's Literary section and if you would like to submit poetry/art work go to the home page and email me some samples.


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