Open Letter to the President: Physics Education

Open Letter to the President: Physics Education


Dear Mr. President, Do you know much about physics? I mean, you’re
the President of the United States: a country with five thousand nuclear weapons, birthplace
of the world’s computing and telecommunications industry, home of the first atomic clock and
creator of the global positioning system. But chances are, if you just took regular
American high school physics, you don’t know one iota about the science behind these things
(No offense). That’s because high school physics students across most of America are not required
to learn about pretty much any physical phenomena discovered or explained more recently than
1865. Yes, 1865. That’s the year the civil war ended and well over a decade before Albert
Einstein was even born! You know what can happen in 150 years, Mr.
President? A lot. Velcro, for one. But let me list some useful and important ideas of
the last 150 years of physics that aren’t a required part of most standard US high school
physics courses: Photons. The structure of atoms. The existence
of Antimatter. GPS. Lasers. Transistors. Diodes and LEDs. Quarks. Chaos Theory. Electron Microscopy.
MRI scanning. The Big Bang. Black Holes. Star formation. The fact that gravity bends light.
The fact that the universe is expanding. The Higgs Boson and the weak and strong nuclear
forces and all the rest of quantum mechanics and relativity and the topic of every single
Nobel Prize in Physics since… always. Basically, most of the important stuff. I mean, Mr. President, imagine if history
classes didn’t talk about the abolition of slavery, world wars I or II, the great depression,
the rise of the US as a global superpower, the cold war or the civil rights movement
or heaven forbid the first African American President. Or imagine if biology classes didn’t
talk about DNA, or hormones, or cell reproduction or the modern germ theory of disease or ecology.
Or if geologists didn’t talk about plate tectonics. And computer scientists… well… in 1865
a computer was a person who computed your taxes. Now, if you were lucky enough to have an ambitious
teacher or take Advanced Placement Physics, then you might have learned about some of
Einstein’s discoveries of 1905! Yes! Current events! But learning about how Einstein’s
work helped set the stage for a century of amazing developments in our understanding
of the universe is not a part of the standard curriculum. So why, Mr. President, am I addressing this
letter to you? Well, you appoint the Secretary of Education, for one – and I do believe that
high school physics is somewhat related to education. Now, maybe your education secretary says,
“ancient physics is already hard to teach to high schoolers. And you want us to teach
them modern physics which is even harder?! Students can’t really appreciate the beauty
of modern physics without fancy college level mathematics.” RUBBISH. Ever heard of Carl
Sagan? Richard Feynman? Or Neil deGrasse Tyson? These great men have been 100% committed to
the appreciation and dissemination of the awesomeness of the universe. And we should
be too. How else are we supposed to foster and find our future brilliant innovators,
inventors, and explorers? How can we expect to educate our citizens for the next century
if we don’t teach about the last? And that’s not to say that we should ignore
math, either – on the contrary, math is one of the most beautiful and awesome things in
the universe, especially because it allows us to understand the universe. In particular, the last 150 years have borne
fruit to perhaps the most drastic changes in our understanding of the universe, ever,
and these new ways of thinking and solving problems should be the centerpiece of an education
in physics. Between you and me, Mr. President, I think
we’d better start making physics education more awesome here in the US, otherwise the
next Carl Sagan or Richard Feynman will come from somewhere with more educational foresight
– maybe even, the Internet. Sincerely, A collection of atoms known as Henry ps you’re probably super busy, but if you’d
like to hear about physics education across the Atlantic, I highly recommend heading over
to Brady’s channel, Sixty Symbols, for a perspective from the UK. I bet you’ll enjoy it.