Dominic Walliman

I’ve always been intrigued with physics ever since I nearly failed it in my freshman year. What was it about physics that I found so difficult? Well fast forward 57 years and I’m now taking this course

“Exploring the Universe (ETU): A Non-Mathematical Look at the 20th Century Physics and Cosmology”

to find out why it was so hard and could I learn it now. One problem is that the text for the course above has sentences like this:

“When particles are entangled their properties or states, like spin or phase polarization, will be linked. But until they are measured, those properties will remain in superposition, meaning it can be in multiple states at once.”

So I have to do what I did to pass physics way back when which was to read books about physics in the library to help me understand. Today I use a lot of Youtube videos. Thank goodness there are a lot of good ones that help. 

Now that I’ve completed 5 sessions (out of 10) of ETU I’ve come to the conclusion that physics is indeed HARD. For example Einstein’s special and general relativity is non-intuitive. I have to unwire my brain from thinking in a conventional Newtonian way.  Unfortunately, the professor just gives me more sentences like the one I quoted above. 

At a wedding I once asked a friend who was working on his Phd thesis in Physics what the “new” physics (quantum physics) was about. After about 5 minutes all the people sitting at our table got up and left. So much for non-intuitive party talk.

The video above is not so much about physics as it about teaching. The video is 15 and a half minutes long but well worth watching by any teacher who is interested in engaging their students in learning. 

If you don’t have time to watch the video, below is my number one take-away from it. (It starts at 10:31 in the video.)

Four Principles of good science [or math] communication

1. Start off in the right place. It’s our job [as teachers] to explain things in terms that [the audience] understands. It’s no good leaving a gap and starting from there because they’re not going to follow along. It’s better to form the information from what they already understand. And how do you do this? It’s as simple as asking them questions about what they know, or even starting an explanation and then asking, “Do you already get this?,” or, you know “Is this making any sense?” And if you are talking to an audience, you have to make your best guess, and a show of hands can be useful too. People generally don’t mind hearing information that they already know.

2. Don’t go too far down the rabbit hole. People can only take on a certain amount of information at any one time, and we have to just be realistic about that. So it’s better to explain just three things that someone will understand and remember rather than barrage them with a whole load of information that kind of undoes all of your good work, to begin with. I could have carried on about Quantum Physics but hopefully I gave you enough examples that kind of piqued your interest and you can go away with it.

3. Clarity beats accuracy. So when we’re explaining things with examples the temptation is to give the most scientifically accurate explanation, but they tend to be long and kind of convoluted. It’s better to come up with a simpler explanation that maybe isn’t completely technically correct, but it gets the point across. Imagine you are here and the complete explanation is there. All you want to do is just get them along that path. So, for example, when I was talking about spin in quantum systems, the truth is actually a little bit more abstract, of spinning in these subatomic particles but what I tell you is a good picture, and if people are still interested you can always iron out the details later.

4. Explain why you think its cool. If you are explaining something to someone, there’s a reason why you’re doing it. Either you think it’s super important or very, very interesting. And the more that you can convey that to someone, the more likely they are to remember it and kind of get some value from it. And you can do this in many ways. One way is to show your enthusiasm for the subject. Another way is to show, using examples, how it’s relevant to their lives. So for example, quantum physics: every time you turn on your phone, you’re invoking the fundamental laws of the universe to do your bidding – as you tweet photos of your cat.

Science shouldn’t be about whether you’re good at it or not. It should only be about whether you’re interested. And so, if you find science intimidating I just encourage you: there’s so much good information out there these days. Just pick the subject that you’re interested in, find some material, and then just, from there, follow your curiosity. –Dominic Walliman

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