Education Must Capture Student Enthusiasm

The success of the play Copenhagen demonstrates once again the public's potential enthusiasm for physics and related societal topics. 

Now cut to physics education, where introductory courses dwell on classical mechanics and electromagnetism with at most a superficial introduction to special relativity and "old" (pre-1925) quantum physics.  We seldom hint that Newton's laws are only low-energy approximations to the quantum-relativistic principles that seem to describe the universe, that Newtonian mechanics is not valid for most phenomena, and that an enormous conceptual gulf exists between a Newtonian clockwork mechanism and contemporary physics. 

Do physics students experience the depth and excitement elicited by Copenhagen?  I think not.  Do they sense the wonder of the uncertainty principle, or do they, at best, merely run through yet another formulaic calculation involving symbols called delta-x and delta-p?  Do they ever hear anything about, say, quantum entanglement, a phenomenon that has perplexed physicists since the 1930s, that is comparable in significance to quantum uncertainty, and about which significant new results have appeared regularly since the 1960s?  Even in courses for nonscientists, in which there is no constraint to cover the encyclopedic minutia of Newtonian mechanics, we fill our students' brains with watered-down versions of the "real" physics courses that are based on the manipulation of classical formulas. 

We are living in what should be the golden age of physics education.  Physics has never been so exciting.  We've been given the Big Bang, dark matter, quantum entanglement, and much more.  A smash Broadway hit is even based on the subtleties of physics, and of its social implications.  We are not required to throw this excitement away when we enter the classroom.  Small enrollments, student antipathy to anything titled "physics," and lukewarm public support need not be our fate.  By replacing formulaic manipulation with conceptual understanding, and above all by focusing on modern concepts and societal connections, teachers can capture the latent enthusiasm for ideas that is so evident in the success of Copenhagen

Art Hobson 
University of Arkansas

Pantazis Mouroulis (Physics Today, November 2000, page 78) writes that teaching "the Big Bang to college sophomores is a bad idea."  He goes on to say "Real science courses should be taught only when students have the background to appreciate and understand the material." 

To be realistic, however, one first-year or sophomore astronomy course is often the only time we physical scientists get a crack at a student.  We have to make the most of that opportunity by describing the most exciting aspects of our fields. 

Of course, we should be as clear as possible and link the discussion to a wider context and to scientific ways of thought, but if we wait until we "reinstate rigor in science instruction," we will miss the overwhelming majority of students. 

Jay M. Pasachoff 
Williams College
Williamstown, Massachusetts