Let’s get physics-cal

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physics-cal the peak

Beginner level physics texts need to focus on the facts, no matter how daunting

By Ben Buckley

Why are students in high school and first-year university taught outdated theories?

Physicist Richard Feynman said that if all scientific knowledge were destroyed and only one sentence survived, the most important statement would be the atomic hypothesis: “that all things are made of atoms.” In the 21st century, most people accept that atoms exist, and have some understanding that they’re made up of electrons, protons and neutrons.

But looking through an average first-year physics textbook, you’d think that atoms were a frightening new discovery reserved for advanced students.

The textbook from my introductory university physics course doesn’t mention electrons until page 564, and doesn’t cover the working of elementary particles until the last tenth of the book.

Most introductory physics courses teach the same topics in a similar order. Students first learn classical mechanics, like Newton’s 17th-century mechanics describing the motions of macroscopic objects, mainly celestial bodies and projectiles, or the classical electromagnetism, encapsulated mostly by James Clark Maxwell’s 19th-century equations.

Newton and Maxwell’s theories helped to advance science, and remain a useful approximation of reality, but they are flawed. Both the classical theories predate the proof of the existence of atoms and completely ignore their existence, a glaring omission if I ever heard of one.

So again, why are fledgling physicians taught these outdated theories? Modern theories require more complicated mathematics and are ver y counter-intuitive; classical theories are mathematically simple, and, it is argued, provide a safe introduction to physics. They are lies that happen to be easy to teach.

Because of this, authors and educators often treat relativity and quantum mechanics as spooky, mysterious ideas that no one truly understands. Maybe decades ago, but not anymore. A basic understanding of the principles of modern physics is well within the grasp of a motivated high school student. Even the mathematics involved are only slightly more complicated than Math 12, at least for simple problems.

Left to our own devices, humans are terrible physicists; even with “classical” problems, it took geniuses like Newton and Maxwell to come up with theories that came even close to describing reality. If their theories were really intuitive, undergraduates wouldn’t struggle to learn them. If schools are going to teach a counter intuitive theory, they might as well teach the correct one, rather than clutter students’ minds with falsehoods they have to unlearn.

The top priority of a science class should be to teach the truth. We must get used to the world of relativity, quantum mechanics, and atoms. It is, after all, the world we live in.