The first fact that must be addressed in considering this question is that physics, being the essential prototypical science, the ultimate arbiter of rule outs in other sciences, and the most mathematically and logically sophisticated of all sciences, is damn hard to understand.
It is so difficult, in fact, that few survive even its beginnings, but difficulty is not the only reason so few follow its course.
The reason for the low 'survival rate' is the method and conditions under which it is taught. Difficulty, not surprisingly, cuts down the number of students who dedicatedly study physics, to the point at which, at least since the destructive Nixon administration, a physics faculty has been required to justify its existence in economic terms.
There is nothing wrong, especially in these days of the Internet, with a small physics department that teaches a small number of future physicists. There is nothing wrong with courses that teach *about* physics; but the two should not be confused.
Why, after all, can't it be like other departments having squadrons of students as, e.g., a sociology department?
To any genuine physicist the answer is easily arguable. But in the present situation, where universities have been made dependent for their very existence on the federal government as much as any other welfare recipient, to a corporate and government minded administration that has forgotten entirely the very purpose of a university, a cogent argument in contradiction to a bottom line is no argument at all.
That answer is very simple: the subject matter itself justifies the existence of schools of arts and sciences.
Why? Because they are the essences of all thought. While the value of sociology, and its pretensions to a science are debatable, arts and sciences are the very things by which we measure the greatness of any civilization. Neither the arts nor the sciences have ever been "useful"; they are simply essential, and complementarily so.
What physics departments all over the U.S. have done is what might be expected when they desire the political clout of numbers and size within an essentially corrupt academic environment: they whore themselves out to other departments. They give the impression that the students who take physics courses have actually learned this "difficult thing", in exchange for which these other departments, most notoriously the engineering departments, 'require' certain undergraduate physics courses.
You are certain not to read about this well known, half century old truth in any of the "physics teacher's" journals; it is just a trifle too embarrassing and revealing.
The standard second class citizens in this sordid affair are pre med students who are also required to take a few watered down physics courses of the "plug in the numbers" variety.
The individuals who are completely cheated are the very competent students of physics to whom the subject is something without which they cannot pursue their life's primary goal.
It seems there are courses in physics for everyone other than those dedicated individuals who would become our future physicists.
It is completely disturbing to those students who understand the concept that all of physics is a quest for understanding of the physical universe, to be taught as if the theory they are being taught were some sort of sacred scripture, and that there are no questions worth asking within it, i.e., as if it were simply nicely packaged engineering.
If that were true, physicists could stop theorizing, pack up their books, and go listen to Mozart or Bach - which would be fairly probable. Students, presently, are unlikely even to know who Mozart and Bach were, or why K. F. Gauss is called "Prince of Mathematicians", much less, who he was.
This is as much the fault of similarly corrupted mathematics departments. Historical and unavoidable interplay between mathematics and physics has been thereby obscured in academia, where that very connection once flourished. Various pseudoscientific popular books have contributed to the fairly bizarre notion that one can properly understand or even more bizarre that one can "do" physics without mathematics. This is as sensible as claiming that one can read and write Tibetan poetry without understanding Tibetan.
The truth of the matter is that for a theoretical physicist it is required that he know a greater expanse of mathematics than is required of a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics. They can afford to be specialists.
There are grievous errors within every physical theory that is taught, and each is taught by disingenuous teachers, or by teachers who have mindlessly learned by rote through the disingenuousness of their own teachers.
In either case, the problems are hidden to students, and understood and known only by experts who have performed the work of digging them out. Fortunate and rare is the student who has an informed and honest teacher.
The concept and mathematical expression of "energy" in general relativity is not at all clear. In a worse state yet is the concept of angular momentum in any relativistic theory. The interpretation of quantum formalism and its classical limit has not much improved over the past 80 years. There are clear errors in the physical applications of mathematical continua. These, part of a larger list, are almost never mentioned in standard academic fare.
[I am *not* inviting every pseudoscientific wacko in the world to regale me with his untutored and ignorant opinion; if you don't know what a Banach algebra is, don't write!]
There are scientists with a genuine and reasonable conservatism - then there are those with just plain stupidity. Primarily, it is the latter who are teaching physics, simply because neither they nor the universities have anything better to offer.
Contrary to the appearance of most physics courses, physics is the apex of what should properly be called natural philosophy, but which has now transcended the almost contentless subject of philosophy. There is no branch of philosophy left that has not been superseded by a more epistemologically sound science, and this of course includes epistemology. Answers to the fundamental epistemological questions: how do I know, and how do I integrate what I know are contained in the established methods of genuine science.
Physics is not a technology. Physics is not some uselessly complicated form of engineering, or an exercise in solving rote engineering problems; it is, and should be taught as the prototypical epistemological science that it is.
The fact that physics is not taught as it should be, has given the illusion that every so called science can achieve the same greatness as physics, simply by couching its babblings in inscrutable mathematics. Economics comes to mind immediately. The impossibility of its glib mathematizations becomes especially complicated, and its alleged subject matter made yet more inscrutable when a corrupt self serving government is spitting out its false and equally self serving, fabricated statistics. Sociology is beyond the pale (also beyond the pail :-).
The models of economics become increasingly divorced from reality creating an illusory model, the deceit of which will eventually collide violently with the inescapable reality. We may not be able know reality directly, but we can know a lie.
This systematic destruction of physics, and also of mathematics, has caused a seemingly unending list of purposeful and negligent, yet perfectly accepted abuses of both. The standard "uses" of statistics are a fraud - notably, in the contrafactual idea that correlation implies causality.
Science, generally, has become politicized, and therefore entirely in its essence a governmental fraud. This could not have been accomplished without the destruction of learning.
For example, the subject of alleged "global warming" has been, and continues to be a pseudoscientific subject throughout the media - even alternative Internet media. How is such nonsense allowed to propagate, unchallenged?
The destruction of science, critical thought, genuine information, etc., so that words themselves have been stripped of meaning and left only with their emotionally loaded connotations.
All this insanity is connected with the destruction of learning, and of scientific and rigorous thought in particular. Modes of learning and rigorous thought are not directly practical matters. Physics is not, after all, a practical study; it never was. More than a study, it is probably a state of mind, or vocation. The study of mathematics and physics, even by the nonscientist, makes clearer what is true and what is patently ridiculous in the sewage that streams forth from the ignorant, government controlled, media.
Perhaps, that physics has sunk as low as it has in academic content, is the result of the misguided and ill educated second and third generation of its fourth and fifth rate current mundane "practitioners'" attempts to make it appear that it is directly practical, i.e., that it is engineering. The general public is even incapable of understanding the very important difference between science which has to do with knowing, and technology (engineering), which has to do with doing.
Is this situation unique to physics? Hardly. It is, unfortunately, completely typical of what one may find in almost every department of every university in the United States, and it is an outright fraud. The frauds of high schools are even worse.
How do I know this, you might ask. I know it from the total of my experiences as a continuing student, as having taught mathematics, and having been professor of physics.
How great a fraud this is has to be measured against the failure of U.S. schools even to train students to think, read and write, and count.
This has been called "the age of information"; perhaps to some, that was the intent, but it more resembles an age of disinformation and the disinformed, of ignorance and the ignorant, of babbling by babblers, and of pseudoscience rather than science. The sciences and technologies exist for a healthy, happy, productive freely created wealth for all, e.g., psychologists have known for decades at least the conditions for such a human existence; this knowledge is systematically ignored and hidden in a mountain of obfuscatory trash.
Scientists should understand what is wrong; mostly, they have no idea, and are too riveted on the details and difficulties of their own specialties to have the time or energy to create true overviews. Wisdom is lacking there, often also integrity. Elsewhere, knowledge and intelligence is destroyed; wisdom and integrity are unheard of.
The number of e-mails that I get from students, requesting help on any number of subjects covered on my webpages, within which there is nary a coherent thought, nor a correctly spelled or written simple declarative sentence, is pitiable. But it isn't exactly the fault of those students, is it? Their minds and their ability to think have been destroyed, quite deliberately.
This ubiquitous perversity has a clearly consistent history of approximately 100 years. Who would allow or promote such a thing - and why?
I know. Do you?
Is there any solution which avoids the impending destruction? Some things must be destroyed before they can be rebuilt, and even then, as history shows all too frequently, there is such a thing as lost knowledge, and technology is the first to disappear leaving, if anything, only arcane theoretical relics behind.
The most satisfying teaching experience I ever had was at UWM. He who decided which graduate TA was to teach what, one Michael M. Shurman, who always signed himself as "M²S", suggested to me that I should teach an upper level undergraduate course in solid state physics. A first that a TA at UWM should do such a thing.
There was surely and certainly just a little clever mentoring manipulation in that since solid state physics was an area that he knew I had shunned, and that it was the only area I had ever shunned.
My trepidations notwithstanding, I said OK, and he threw me a book [Solymar 1970] , and said this might be a good text, why don't you look at it and see what you think, and then get back to me; you can always expand on it.
I read the whole book, and we met again, and I said something about the text being good, and that the students should probably be able to read it, but that it seemed a little disjointed in the quantum mechanical area. With great smile he threw another book, [Cropper 1970] at me, and suggested this might make things smoother. It happened to cover the history of quantum theory in a way that I didn't know it - much more humanly historical.
I was mildly panicked, at the prospect of teaching a course on a subject that I figured I knew almost nothing about, with two texts that I now had to read and learn.
I read both books, made notes for mimeographing (it's what we did then) and sort of made a syllabus for the course. M²S just smiled and took in what I did. He was the kind of guy you did not want to disappoint, not out of fear, but out of love.
As I had worked my ass off for M²S, so my students, all 9 of them, worked their asses off for me. They got a workout, maybe more than they knew, but they also were excited about the material, and individually they got patted on the back for every insight they achieved by themselves. They worked together outside of class, and classes were not a "me" and "them" affair - it was an "us" thing.
A final exam was a joke: I knew every one of them, and what they knew. When they arrived for the final exam, I simply told them that it was completely unnecessary, showed them what their grades would be without it, and with unanimous agreement, I took the whole class to a local pub for beer.
They had, after all, worked individually and cooperatively for me, and I figured they really needed to know in some real way that what they all had done so well was both noticed and appreciated. With luck, they still remember a bit of solid state physics, the joy of learning, and the analytical and creative thinking that I took pleasure in their establishing. They even learned to fight like good natured scholars.
With one exception, teaching was downhill from there, and I thank M²S for that perfectly wonderful, if laborious, experience. It was well worth the effort, and the memory still gives a contented smile; it was a joy, not a chore.
It was all very different then; and all of this story has more to do with teaching generally than it does teaching physics, though the teaching was of physics.
I can tell you what binomial coefficients are; that is not teaching, some minor scribblings will suffice. 1066, and William the Bastard is of no importance, except in the context of all that came before, and all that followed. Process before State, if State is not even a meaningless illusion.
Teaching and learning are human things, regardless of the subject matter, and when they are forced into a mechanical thing divorced from humanity, all is not only dead - but lost, along with the humanity and the essential humanism from which it all sprang many millennia ago.
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