Physics is perhaps the most inaccessible of academic subjects – one that is often mentioned in the same breath as the term “hitting a brick wall” and while more and more students are aware that sciences will offer more work opportunities in the 21st century, Physics remains a “hard” science in all senses of the word.
In the 2014 movie about theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, The Theory of Everything, the screen fills with reams of equations on a blackboard with the aim of dazzling the audience by its brilliance on the presumption that it is beyond the grasp of average intelligence.
But apart from the existence of black holes, Physics is the essence of the world around us. It tries to address the questions human beings have surely been asking themselves since time immemorial. So why do the majority of us tend to take so much physical phenomenon for granted?
Given current efforts to cut carbon emissions and work towards a cleaner planet, a knowledge of Physics has never been so intrinsic to our survival as it is today. Not only can Physics explain the mechanics of existence, it is at the root of inventions that could help us to pollute less and reverse potentially dire consequences.
Most of us might think rocket launches have little relevance to our daily lives, but clean energy systems has to be at the top of the collective agenda.
The first stumbling block with Physics is the Maths – what some experts call the purest of the sciences. Because the Maths that is used to explain physical phenomena, such as force, sound and light, is a different language, many of us doubt our ability to get our minds around it. But can we all master a certain degree of Physics or is it a subject for the select few, as the movies suggest?
“That’s a super interesting question,” says Alex Smith, Secondary Physics teacher at King’s College Alicante. “I’d say there are certain concepts that are very difficult to understand and are best broken down by using models or analogies. An example would be using spheres to represent atomic models. Even if everyone can’t understand a topic in its totality, I’m certain we can all get very close to a full understanding by using approximations, models and metaphors.”
Alex is not the only physicist to appreciate the magnitude of the subject and how challenging it is even to scratch its surface. Sir Isaac Newton, the man who worked out the science behind gravity, observed: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
Another aspect that can trip us up is the unfamiliar vocabulary used to describe the concepts. ‘Scalar’ and ‘vector’, for example, are not words that most of us use every day. As Alex points out, “As a science teacher, the most difficult thing is making abstract concepts understandable. A lot of the time, I will need to begin by solidifying the students’ understanding of the technical words involved.”
The aversion to Physics seems particularly acute when it comes to gender. Perhaps because professional women have long been concentrated in the caring professions, many female students and adults have acquired the notion that their brains are not wired to cope with theories that often seem to lack a human component.
“When I was at school in the early 1980s, Physics in particular was definitely the realm of the geeky male students, with only a few girls taking the subject,” says Simon Holdsworth, Head of the Science and Physics Department at King’s College Madrid. “ I feel this is changing. In my current school, 30% of the A2 students are girls, with many of them wanting to take engineering subjects at university. Slowly the dynamics of the Physics classroom are changing and this will have an impact in years to come on how society views Physics, though there is still much to be done.”
According to Simon, Physics needs be made more relevant to everyday life and mentions the US series The Big Bang Theory as one way of keeping it real. “It succeeds in putting the spotlight on the fact that Physicists are people and have lives and issues,” he says. “Hopefully this will help people see Physics in a different light and stir their interest.”
Simon also mentions the British pop star Brian Cox who has been credited for boosting the numbers of teenagers signing up for Physics in the UK. “His BBC programs are both stimulating and outstanding,” says Simon. “They approach topics in a way that members of the general public can understand without feeling out of their depth. There are ways to introduce ideas without boring people,” he adds. “It has got to be fun and exciting.”
If that may sound like a tall order for people without rock star credentials, Ian Wesson, STEM Curriculum Development Leader at King’s College Alicante, suggests enrichment activities based around themes such as space science. “Activities such as rocketry and solar rovers are always a good hook,” he says. “Once students are enthused, the equations are given a context and become more meaningful.”
Experts across the board agree that Physics is not easily learned passively and perhaps that is why it has been inaccessible for so long. Contextual learning is relatively revolutionary in schools and the idea that making mistakes is not only acceptable, but the path to enlightenment is also something of a U-turn in the classroom.
Encouragingly, Sir Isaac Newton suggested that simplicity was the key. “Truth is ever to be found in simplicity,” said the famous 17th century physicist and mathematician. “And not in the multiplicity and confusion of things.”
Hence, all sorts of complex phenomena can be explained by quite simple Maths apparently – basic formulas which are then built upon. ACDL for Maths at King’s College Alicante, Louise Pepper, explains, “Mathematics is taking a complex problem, removing the complexity to reduce to a simple, solvable problem. The problem is then rebuilt to take into account each of the removed component parts in turn to improve on the initial solution.”
Meanwhile, for those who reject Physics on the grounds that they are more of “an Arts person”, Albert Einstein came up with an underlying common denominator between the two domains: “The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science.”