Friday, June 08, 2007

The death of physics

This really saddens, though sadly does not surprise me. This has been a while coming as my friends in England who are physics teachers can attest to.

This open letter to the AQA board and Department for Education from Wellington Grey about the loss of physics in GCSE physics makes my heart sink. It outlines the fact that the precision of the sciences which is the very thing which attracts so many - the pursuit of truth in a world where so much is indecipherable - has been replaced by politics, sound-bite and skepticism.

Calculation is no longer involved in the GCSE physics syllabus, and this is a crime. I still remember many eureka moments from my physics career, in school and in university. All of them were related to coming up against a problem which wasn't simply a matter of 'common sense' but could be tackled with the strict rules of a mathematical formalism. You got an answer, a number, a yes or no. Something which could be compared to the real world. You had something which made the real world even more solid, more comprehensible, something which allowed you to both understand and manipulate the world around you.

This, it seems, is no longer the case. Now, with the information you learn in the sciences at school, you can argue with your friends in the pub about the benefits of renewable energy, but you will be remembering a list of facts which have been dictated to you. Non-mathematical facts about reality are much harder to manipulate and reuse in other, interesting ways than their mathematical counterparts. We will end up with a nation of parrots who can do nothing more than quote the views of previous scientists, and not even understand where the facts come from, let alone come up with their own theories.

Anyway, I would urge you to read the letter in its entirety, as depressing as it may be.

(Thanks to Flip Tomato who has an article on this same piece)


Luca said...

Hey Jon, I do understand it's mostly an internal British matter, but what's AQA? and GCSE?

Anyway. Don't know whether consolation or not, but this is pretty much where everybody -- at least the "West" -- is going: US and Italy the same.
It was a heated debate going on a couple of years ago, when the Italian previous government reformed low and high education removing pretty much every tools for critical thinking. And not to mention the silly (for not saying worse) idea of having Evolution and Intelligent Design at the same level.

Anonymous said...

I agree jon, a sad thing to come about. I must confess though, by the facts I got in my physics class in junior high school(my teacher claimed Kelvin came up with the Absolut zero because he had some sort of fridge in his lab and the absolut zero was the coldest temperature he could have his fridge at, that was after teaching us the realistic and not ideal fact that due to the relationship between Volume Pressure and Temperature no mass could exist at the absolut zero temperature, she later refused to make any coments on how exactly did kelvin reached the absolut zero in his lab and wether or not the fridge imploded due to the pressure generated.) I would actually be in favor of that happening here in mexico, you have to note my junior high school ranks in the top 3 of the city and in the top 10 of the country. But for well developed countries I agree, a very sad thing in deed.
I have no idea of what GCSE means but after some googling I suppose its the General Certificate of Secondary Education.

Unknown said...

I'll comment in more detail on both of these notes when I have a bit more time to think, but for now:

GCSE is the General Certificate in Secondary Education. It's a series of exams, generally taken around the ages of 14-16 and it's normal to take between 8-12 subjects. Some can be taken early for advanced students. Often the grades for these tests are used as criteria for getting into the next stage of education.

The AQA is the largest exam board in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It stands for the Assessment and Quality Alliance and sets both the exams and the syllabi for much of the country.


Unknown said...

Hi David,

It's pretty sad when your science teacher doesn't know what's going on.

It may be a product of my poor education but I'm a bit confused by your comment. Do you mean that you are in favour of removing the aspects of critical thinking and the mathematical treatment of physical problems from the Mexican syllabus? I'd be interested to know more about your views before responding.

Benjamin said...

Hi Jon. I read the letter but it's difficult to evaluate just how much GCSE physics has changed since my day.

The writer does adequately point out how there is no place for free thought in the political and social questions asked on the paper. Another sign of political correctness gone mad.

(BTW I have to say I'm struggling to appreciate Facebook!)

x Ben

Unknown said...

Hi Ben,

I'm actively not being active on Facebook. I've heard from friends how much of a time drain it can be. For now I'm just keeping it as a great central repository to find friends I haven't spoken with for a long while. I'm trying to use 'classic' e-mail to actually 'talk' with people I meet on there, rather than soundbites on walls, once I've got in contact with them.

All the best,


Sr Cuervo said...

I was being exaggerated and sarcastic. Mexico's school system needs a lot of work, I could actually go on and say its one of the main reasons the county's development has been stagnant. But no, I'm not in favor of it. Physics is definitely a basic course to consider, and should not be taken out of the syllabus. The worst thing that could happen is that people who are actually interested in the details of it would look into it and find out the truth by themselves, as it happened in my case since I never actually come across any details of the 0K in high school nor university again. I admire the fact that there is some sort of quality alliance that people actually have respect for in the UK but it is sad for them to remove physics. In Mexico the quality alliance is propelled by the government but mostly looks after the public schools who's main success right now is the fact that after years of hard work they have finally managed to get kids to learn multiplications and divisions when they finish their secondary education(ok maybe I'm exaggerating again). But still, what happens in Mexico is that most people don't really learn much during their primary and secondary education, its mostly university and in some cases high school the one that actually does the difference. But thats not just because of the governments failure at quality education but also a cultural thing since most parents would always rather have their children in one of the many catholic schools that would focus on teaching the kids about the bible, god and human values rather than physics, chemistry and science in general; so as surprising as it may be we have hundreds of different catholic high school that don't even teach any physics nor math and barely touch general science. Since this actually takes up quite a lot of Mexico's student population, the universities have adapted themselves to the system and even ITESM which is considered the best technical university in Mexico has to give a whole year of basic physics and maths to all science and technical majors which end up being repetitive and quite a waste of time for those of us who actually took math and physics during high school. Thats one of the main reasons I'm not raising a family in this country.

Speaking of which, have you read PZ Myers latest post about Chemistry being outlawed in the US on his blog Pharyngula?