Are we being too romantic with physics?

Featured image: Could you point me out to the next step of this problem?

This week was a very hectic one, one of the reasons being because I did two exams on Electromagnetism I, probably the most dreaded course in every physics graduation program. If you’re not familiar with it, electromagnetism is the advanced study of the interactions between charges, electric fields and magnetic fields, as well as their applications. It involves a lot of vector calculus and special math techniques (the ones learned on courses of mathematical physics or mathematical methods for physicists), and it also require a lot of, let’s say, cunning in order to formulate the problems into mathematical equations and solve them. And this is where things get problematic for me, and for many other students.

A few days ago, I stumbled upon this article on Medium, which speaks of three points tied together: Walter Lewin and his involvement in sexual harassment on MIT, the way physics is [wrongly?] taught in universities and how it affects the learning process of minorities, especially females. I understand how the gender issue has been such an important problem discussed among scientists, but what really struck me while reading was the author’s vision on how we can improve the students’ learning in a physics program by doing one thing: teaching them problem-solving skills. According to the author, that would also help close the gap of gender and minorities on physics, whacking two moles with just one swing. And this article started me thinking: why aren’t we generally taught the techniques of solving physics problems? Actually, there’s a fun expression in Portuguese for that: it’s the jump of the cat. Why aren’t we taught “the jump of the cat” in physics problems?

Preeya Phadnis makes a very important point on that: physics teachers argue that they shouldn’t teach the “jump of the cat” before the students try and battle with the exercises for themselves, because that would take away their chance of having an eureka moment, the climax of solving a very difficult physics problem. Another argument for not teaching the skill is that letting the students figure things out “builds character”, strengthen their wit. Now, analyzing my behavior since I started studying physics, I’d say that I have been guilty of counseling my colleagues (and even myself) into doing things by themselves and just battle until you win the fight against the problems. I am a strong advocate of discovering things by ourselves, because that’s how I’ve been hacking my way into astronomy research: most of the things I know were learned outside of classrooms.

But here is the problem, and I agree with the author: people come from different conditions, have different backgrounds and do not have the same skills. And the way teachers minister their classes act as gatekeeping, especially when they say things like:

  • “Physics is supposed to be difficult: deal with it”
  • “If you want something easy, go study [presumptuously insert a another program here]”
  • “You’re not working hard enough”
  • “Some people do not have what it takes to be a physicist”
  • “Some people will never learn [insert course name here]”

I don’t think teachers should be gatekeepers. That’s not their job. They’re supposed to do exactly the opposite: to open doors. You see, it’s not asking the teacher to be more lenient on the evaluation or just ask easy questions, but it would be helpful if they could actually encourage the students instead of putting them off of physics. No, I don’t think physics is for few people. If they don’t have the necessary skills to solve a physics problem, why not teach them? Let’s go back to electromagnetism: if you’re not familiar with it, you should know that solving a problem of EM can take a long time – depending on how it’s set, it can take several hours or even days for the student to develop a solution, and the smallest mistake will screw everything up – and things can get worse if you don’t have the right skills. Achieving an eureka is a good sensation, but also a too romantic of a vision on physics. And when your work is not even recognized, why bother? What was it worth for? Yeah, you solved a problem that was already solved a hundred years ago, big deal. Looking at the bright side, at least you developed the problem-solving skill a little bit – but at what cost? The biggest problem is that some people will not even learn, since the towel was already thrown midway through the problem because they thought they did not have what it takes to solve it.

I once heard that I am a lazy physicist, that I don’t want to solve the most intricate and difficult problems because they seem to take too much work. From a teacher. While that might partially be true, it’s not about laziness, it’s because I have different skills (such as programming, using numerical methods, working with schematic plots in order to advance in the problem), but I wasn’t allowed to use them to solve those problems. Instead, I was forced to develop a skill – solving difficult problems on paper – by myself, because that’s how, supposedly, physics should be [or was] done [before me].

This week is also the last of the semester at the university, and some students were doing their final exams while others were already on vacation. However, when a few of us gathered in front of the university library, I was very sad to know that one of my friends from the physics courses is leaving the program. She is a girl and a former research colleague, and her reason for doing so is because she doesn’t think she has the right skills to be a successful [astro-]physicist, and she also felt very demotivated to continue taking the courses. I wonder how much of her despondency was caused by discouragement from her peers, teachers and the general culture of physics school. I also learned that many of my colleagues from the electromagnetism class gave up on it midway through the course because they couldn’t keep up with it. Additionally, there are a couple of other students that have been hanging up on even more basic courses (such as vector calculus and basic physics) – for years –  and they are just now managing to arrive at the more advanced courses. It’s quite depressing.

Let’s get one thing out of the way, though, and this is a point correctly made by a professor that I know: here in Brazil, and very frequently at my home university, most people who enter the physics program are there because that’s the only option, their “plan B”. These people think that, by entering on that program, they can easily do a transfer to an engineering program [1] after the first year. What they don’t realize is that it is not allowed to transfer from physics to engineering, only the other way around. When these fresh students realize that, there is a massive leave from the program, which usually occurs after the first and second semesters. I remember that, when I entered the physics program (as a diploma carrier), there were something like 50 or 60 freshmen. Right now, at the 6th semester, a very optimistic estimation would be around 10 students. What I mean by all this, is that there will always be a very high leave rate for the first year of a physics program here, but I would assume that everyone that stays there after that is either interested on physics or have absolutely nothing better to do besides carrying on the courses. If there is a reason for these people to stick to the physics program after the trial of the first year, there must be also a reason for they to decide to leave after 5 or 6 semesters. Could it be just a sudden realization that “physics is not for me” [2] or were they ever so slowly forced to think that throughout the years?

To be honest, I was also very discouraged and demotivated from the EM course. But I still kept on, because… I don’t really know, maybe I had external motivations to do so. It’s such an interesting part of physics, and yet, they managed to turn it into a torture. The classes were 2-hour long (without break) whiteboard grinding sessions, with lots of intricate derivations of crazy equations, and very few connections with practical physics. Maybe there are physicists who enjoy this approach, but I’m not one of them – I prefer to take a more pragmatic approach. I like to say that I street fight physics, going down and dirty with it. It’s not beautiful, in fact it is sometimes inelegant or ugly, but it’s the way I do. I wish that we could have a more diverse physics teaching, a celebration of the different skills among scientists, and that the ones we don’t have could be taught instead of used to filter us at university.

While this ideal environment is not achieved at the universities (and I don’t think it will be done in a timely manner), I highly recommend other striving physics students to do the following: just hack the system – find ways and shortcuts to do the problem-solving, learn them, make annotations and study them. The problem is that, with this approach, you’ll miss out on the actual physics (the things that happen outside the mathematical equations). Or maybe it will help? If you learn the problem-solving skills fast enough, perhaps you’ll have time to study the implications of the equations. But again, this might be highly dependent on one’s background and conditions. Also, we could do without the boring 2-hour long pointless classes, right?


[1] Why do people leave physics to do engineering? For 2 reasons. First: engineering pays better. Second (which is probably tied to the first): engineering is their first option, and their grade on the selection exam wasn’t good enough to make it into the highly competitive vacancies.

[2] One might wonder if that is what happened to me when I decided to leave engineering and go study astrophysics. Well, it’s not because I thought engineering wasn’t for me, it’s more complicated than that. I do think I have the skills to be an engineer, but the thing is that I actually did not find it joyful. It was boring (at the context I was in). There are other additional reasons that contributed to my decision, but I will leave them for another post.

Are we being too romantic with physics?

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