Monday, November 21, 2005

Bark: No wonder there's a crisis

Physics is in the news today, because there's apparently a severe shortage of Physics teachers, and it might disappear off the curriculum within 10 years. No wonder there's a crisis when venerable establishments like the BBC can't even get stories about Physics right.

"No equation is anywhere near as recognisable as E = mc2" they say. Shame it's WRONG. That's not Einstein's equation. E = mc2 is a gross simplification of the full equation, made for just the purposes of sounding snappy and sexy.

The full equation (which the article alludes to, but does not state) is:

E2 = m2c4 + p2c2 (where 'p' is momentum: the product of mass 'm' and velocity 'v')

For most practical purposes, E = mc2 is a useless equation, because very rarely in Physics do you need to calculate the energy of a stationary object. It's just trundled out at regular intervals to show how brilliant Einstein was, and for a degree educated Physicist like myself, it's annoying, because it's portrayed as being the be-all and end-all of our grasp of Physics, when the equation itself doesn't mean anything - it doesn't give you an accurate picture. It's like using Newtonian Mechanics to describe how electrons orbit the nucleii of atoms. It may give the common or garden ignoramus a picture in their minds eye that they can relate to, but it's not right. That's not the way things are. I would go into the details of how electrons exist in quantum probability shells around the nucleii of atoms, but you'd probably just glaze over at this point and say "Physics is too hard".

That's a myth, too, I'm afraid. I'm about as lazy as they come, and I got a decent degree in it. Physics is a subject of staggering importance in people's day to day lives. You wouldn't have non-stick frying pans without Physics. You wouldn't have aeroplanes, computers, cars, electric lights, mobile phones, televisions, digital watches, cyclone-action hoovers, ballpoint pens, the clockwork radio, contact lenses, Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Imaging medical scanners, or just about any major invention from the last 4000 years either, dating right back to the catapult and the Archimedes Screw.

There's something fundamentally wrong with the modern generation of kids, if they all want the latest electronic gadgets, but are too lazy or too stupid to be interested to find out science behind how they came to be invented. Whatever happened to childhood curiousity?

If A-level Physics does disappear from our classrooms, not only would it be a tragedy for UK industry, but on a personal level so many more people won't have an idea of not just how stuff works, but *why* stuff works. Learning how stuff works is important, but it's the understanding of *why* it works that leads to further innovation.
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