The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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physics

Why Learn Physics?

MinutePhysics posted this video, entitled “Open Letter to the President: Physics Education”, to their YouTube stream.

Summary: The content of high school physics curricula generally stop at around the year 1865, which is an interesting observation. At first it seems quite logical that students should follow the prescribed path from kinematics to dynamics to electromagnetism and from there on to more complex topics if there is time (which of course there never is, so we never get to anything further).

But from another perspective, does one really need an understanding of dynamics as a prerequisite to an introduction to relativity and quantum? I actually don’t think so. The physics discoveries of the 21st century so profoundly changed our fundamental view of the universe and how we relate to it, that most of what came before seems absurdly limited in scope. Quantum Mechanics, for example, starts from very different conceptual foundations than does Newtonian Mechanics; thus, even though one came before the other chronologically, they really have nothing to do with each other conceptually.

I think it would be awesome to teach an introduction to contemporary scientific issues and understanding in high school. The inevitable counterpoint question will of course be, “but when will they use that?” I certainly admit that Newtonian Mechanics and classical electromagnetic theory, though limited in scope and not even technically correct by modern standards,  are far more likely to be “relevant to students’ lives” than quantum, relativity, particle theory, or cosmology. (In other words, Newtonian Mechanics are more readily applicable to every day situations even though their underlying assumptions and framework do not actually describe physical reality as we now know it.)

However, my (opinionated) rebuttal to this counterpoint is that it is, like so much of education policy, shortsighted and focused on the wrong things. What is the purpose of education? More specifically, what is the purpose of high school science education? What should my students be learning in my physics classroom? Though I certainly encourage STEM careers and want to prepare my students for college, the fact of the matter is that very few of them — even under ideal circumstances — will go on to choose further study and careers in science and engineering. If and when they do, they will receive specialized content instruction and training for it. So, yes they should have some introductory content knowledge, but ultimately what is more important for all of my students, including the STEM-bound ones, to come away with in their formative years as they emerge as adult citizens of the nation and world?

I would argue that the best answer to this question is: a sense of place. A perspective that the universe is a beautiful and endlessly fascinating arena full of challenge and discovery — and that therefore, on that principle alone, it is worthy of study and exploration. An understanding of the rigorous tools of scientific analysis and inquiry that have allowed us as a species to discard illusions and improve our lives. Further, a realization that they must use these tools daily as citizens in the modern world as a defense against manipulation by interests who would misrepresent science for self-serving ends.  And lastly, a cohesive story of our human quest for truth — the part that was grounded in empiricism and fueled by curiosity — which has brought us to our present understanding of what we are, where we came from, and where we are going.

Very little of this perspective, by the way, is captured in the present Massachusetts high school physics curriculum [PDF] or standardized accountability tests such as the MCAS. From what I have read, the Next Generation Science Standards are much, much better than what we have now and certainly a huge step in the right direction. But even these standards, on the cutting edge of what American K-12 science education policy is working on, remain far from the mark in my opinion. They remain somewhat impeded by the inertia of 150 years of “this is what we’ve always taught”.

It is only in the context of physics as the true “natural philosophy” — testing whether our human ideas hold traction with reality — that (properly) introducing the most contemporary physical understanding of the universe (alongside those which came before) to our high school students makes sense. Barring that framework for what physics education is ultimately for, I really doubt that our students will learn physics past 1865 until and unless they choose to do so in college — by which point it may be too late to engage them with it anyway. Which means of course, that it may be too late for the study of physics to contribute to the scientific literacy of the overwhelming majority of our citizens.

Keep fighting the good fight, MinutePhysics.



Ain’t No Party Like a Teacher Party

Tantalizing hints that Akil might be at the party, or at least showing up to it soon.

Last weekend, one of my BTR colleagues hosted a Halloween party. Yup. Ain’t no party like a teacher party, especially when nerdy costumes are the order of the day. Naturally, my co-resident Akil and I had to come up with geeky ways to represent Physics. When it turned out that he wasn’t going to be able to make the party after all, we hit upon the perfect costume for him.

Before the party, we were both very vague about whether or not Akil would be showing up at all. We made contradictory statements, and framed the question in terms of theoretical possibilities (note: this does not improve one’s social standing). Then, on the night of the party, I showed up with a pad of post-it notes and started posting cryptic messages all around the party, such as:

“Akil was probably here.”

“We are almost certain that Akil exists.”

“The effect of Akil’s presence is evident in the behavior of the cohort but he has not yet been observed at a social function.”

“If Akil doesn’t exist, we don’t know what to do.”

“This social interaction only makes sense if we assume Akil started it.”

…and so forth. Of course, Akil never actually shows up to the party (as per usual). Give up? He’s the Higg’s Boson! Bwaaaahahahaha….

Maxwell’s Demon shirt. A little too abstractly nerdy in retrospect.

Yes, I know, very clever, thank you.

Mine was much less easily explicable, and hence not as big of a hit. It also didn’t help that I threw it together in about an hour. I walked down to Goodwill and found a plain white tshirt, snagged some markers and a pair of devil’s ears from CVS, and put together a poor man’s Maxwell’s Demon costume. It even included two “pockets” of energy. Ha. Haha. Hahaha.

Anyway, bonus points for still remembering the Boltzmann Entropy Equation and the Boltzmann Distribution Equation (on the back of the shirt), right?

Ah, nerding out.



Was the Big Bang Like Freezing Ice?

ikenbot:

Was the Big Bang Like Water Freezing into Ice?

How did the universe begin? The Big Bang is traditionally envisioned as the moment when an infinitely dense bundle of energy suddenly burst outward, expanding in three spatial directions and gradually cooling down as it did so. Now, a team of physicists says the Big Bang should be modeled as a phase change: the moment when an amorphous, formless universe analogous to liquid water cooled and suddenly crystallized to form four-dimensional space-time, analogous to ice.

Image: The Big Bang may have been the moment that a water-like universe froze to form the ice-like universe we see today, a new theory holds.

In the new study, lead author James Quach and colleagues at the University of Melbourne in Australia say the hypothesis can be tested by looking for defects that would have formed in the structure of space-time when the universe crystallized.

“Think of the early universe as being like a liquid,” Quach said in a statement. “Then as the universe cools, it ‘crystallises’ into the three spatial and one time dimension that we see today. Theorized this way, as the universe cools, we would expect that cracks should form, similar to the way cracks are formed when water freezes into ice.”

If they exist, these cracks should be detectable, the researchers said, because light and other particles would bend or reflect off of them as they trek across the cosmos.

The notion that space and time are emergent properties that suddenly materialized out of an amorphous state was first put forth by physicists at Canada’s Perimeter Institute in 2006. Called “quantum graphity,” the theory holds that the four-dimensional geometry of space-time discovered by Albert Einstein is not fundamental; instead, space-time is a lattice constructed of discrete space-time building blocks, just like matter looks continuous, but is actually made of building blocks called atoms.

Originally, at extremely high temperatures, the building blocks were like liquid water: they contained no structure, “representing a state with no space,” the researchers wrote in their paper. At the moment of the Big Bang, when the temperature in the universe dropped to the space-time building blocks’ “freezing point,” they crystallized to form the four-dimensional lattice we observe today.

The math describing the theory checks out, but “the challenge has been that these building blocks of space are very small, and so impossible to see directly,” Quach explained. From the human vantage point, space-time looks smooth and continuous.

However, while the building blocks themselves might be too small to detect, the physicists hope to observe the boundaries that would have formed as regions of crystallizing building blocks butted against one another at the time of the Big Bang, creating “cracks” in the universe. More work is needed to predict the average distance between the cracks — it isn’t known whether they are microscopic, or light-years apart — in order to characterize their effects on particles.

The research by Quach and his team is detailed in this month’s edition of the journal Physical Review D.



A quick primer on the more-or-less current state of cosmology.

extremely-geeky:

Cosmologist Sean Carroll talks about the nature of time and the universe. 

I’m Speechless.

Enjoy! 



Why Einstein Was Not Qualified To Teach High-School Physics

Link: Why Einstein Was Not Qualified To Teach High-School Physics

… while at the same time we complain that not enough STEM professionals are connecting with the classroom.

On the one hand, I do very much believe that teaching is a profession in and of its own right, and superb content knowledge does not necessarily a good teacher make. However, I’m also very interested to find out how much of the rhetoric that teacher’s unions use is an accurate defense of a noble profession versus how much is self-inflated protective bullshit.

An engineer investigates this and more over the next few years, stay tuned to this blog…



BTR Announces Host Schools

BTR has posted the schools with which Cohort X will be working this next year. Looks like since I’m on a high school physics track, I will be at either Burke High School in Dorchester (where I had my final interviews on Selection Day) or Boston Community Leadership Academy in Hyde Park (now in Brighton, but moving).

Some quick stats from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Burke High School (public high school):

  • Minority: 92.6%
  • First language not English: 38.7%
  • Limited English proficiency: 25.1%
  • Low-Income: 75.9%
  • Special Education: 20.4%

Boston Community Leadership Academy (pilot high school):

  • Minority: 98.9%
  • First language not English: 53.7%
  • Limited English proficiency: 26.8%
  • Low-Income: 84.8%
  • Special Education: 14.6%

Nervous of the challenge but excited to face it. Burke for example: 0% pass rate for the just 10 students who attempted the AP Physics (Mechanics) exam. Overall only 7% are testing at “proficient” or higher in science by Grade 10. Looks like there’s work to do… saddle up.




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