Quantum Physics World

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Learning physics should be easy

While its true that not all of us are Einsteins, should it be so difficult to learn math, science, and engineering that only a small handful of people can get degrees in these fields?

Part of the problem is the way that math, physics, and engineering are taught. I haven't decided if there is a conscious conspiracy or not-but the truth is these subjects are generally taught in a way that is not helpful to most people. Maybe its because the vast majority of people that become professors are simply quite a bit smarter than the rest of us, and they don't realize what they're doing because they just "get it" and figure if you don't "get it" you are'nt cut out to be a physicist or mathematician.

In a typical college experience, I took "Electrodynamics" in graduate school. The professor was a great lecturer, but his lectures were really a complete waste of time. Basically, we spent our days in class listening to him spit out the book. He would recite the theorems and prove them. Had the book not been available his lectures would have been gold, but since we could buy a book, in fact since we were required to buy a book that had all this exact material in it, the lectures turned out to be no help at all.

It's important to reinforce concepts to be sure, but physics, math and engineering are about doing things. These are active fields where problems must be solved. Its not about memorizing a theorem, its about applying it or being able to derive a new one.

Rather than "lecture", I would prefer that professors assign a book they are going to follow and then use the class time to help students solve problems. They should have the students read a given chapter before coming to class, and then spend class showing students how to solve some problems. Homework can then be assigned allowing students to build on what they did in class to learn how to solve the problems on their own.

To make matters worse, physics professors of late seem to want to avoid sticking to a book at all (yet that is what they really end up doing when all is said and done). I don't know how many times in graduate school a professor would announce he wasn't sticking to a particular book, but you may want to buy these 10 different texts. Please.

Maybe physics professors like having a realm of mystery surround them. They like to feel smarter than everyone else and often aren't interested in helping people learn. So they keep problem solving tricks to themselves, and then tell the students who don't "get it" that they should become experimentalists or engineers.

In Quantum Mechanics Demystified I have attempted to provide readers with a format that makes learning physics straightforward. I show you how to solve quantum mechanics problems, and then you can try to do similar problems on your own.


  • I wish my astrophysics MSc lecturer had stuck to a book then I might have had a chance. I think the course was designed to drive people out of physical science -- too many wanabee Einsteins, not enough places.

    By Blogger Paul Grieg, at 11:36 AM  

  • I am totally agreed with all you have written. I think it is almost impossible to find a good teacher in physics or maths, and sometimes it seems they are more willing to discourage people from entering their "wanabee Einsteins club" than help us. That is frustrating above all if someone like me loves physics but needs a lot help to get through it.

    By Blogger KKathy, at 1:44 AM  

  • I totally agree...100% with what you have written. I am a theoretical physicist who struggled at uni and had to prepare everything by self teaching. I found the "schaums outlines books" excellent to learn in the quickest period of time how to solve problems, which lecturers hardly did any. All was about listening to them and learning basically nothing. However, thereś not much time to learn the whole schaums books. I have read several demystified series like "complex variables, quantum field theory and quantum mechanics" They are excelllent. Congratulations for making life easier for students. Now I read them just for fun. I wish I had discovered them while doing my degree. A question, how to buy "modern physics demystified"? Can not find it anywhere. Best regards

    By Blogger Javier Fernández Tobías, at 7:51 AM  

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