Why a little physics might make you happier.

Welcome, gentle reader, to this quiet, considered corner of the Internet. Think of it as a genteel bookshop nestled in a quiet clearing in a forest full of screaming, shit-flinging monkeys. If that helps.

My musings today are triggered by an unfortunate and inaccurate stab at the tuning buttons on my car radio, subjecting me to a few minutes of a caller to Jeremy Vine’s radio show (a phone-in show, for non-UK readers. Naturally, I swiftly found the ‘aux’ button and soothed myself with some music (although, by comparison to a modern radio phone-in show, the sound of teeth being drilled would be auditory balm…) but not before a train of thought had been shunted into ponderous motion.

It strikes me that perhaps one of the obstructions to reasoned, rational and meaningful debate in modern society over issues like who should be leaving which union of nations, paying for walls, healthcare or nuclear missiles and the like is a general inability for people to cope with cognitive conflict. In other words, to be able to maintain two points of view that show significant differences – for example: I think that we’d all be safer with fewer guns – you’d like more guns, let the vein-popping shouting match commence. In fact, both of us agree that we’d like to see fewer people shot, we’re just not very good at standing down and taking a rational look at each other’s arguments.

Here, someone making a good fist of teaching you the basics of physics might help. You might think that it’s all dull formulae and blocks of mass m being shifted short distances d against a force F. If that’s the case then I apologise on behalf of your physics teacher.

One of the skills (sadly, not one often enough taught) that’s vital to understanding physics is modelling. No, not learning to walk in high heels or getting high on Airfix glue whilst assembling plastic Spitfires (only one of which was a feature of  my youth) but understanding that there is not a final, ‘right’ literal answer to questions such as “What is stuff actually made of?”, just a series of models that explain, illustrate or enable prediction of some aspects of the way that the universe behaves.

Take your understanding (or lack) of the atomic world. You were introduced to the idea that everything is made of tiny bits called ‘atoms’ and probably (because they’re pictured this way in textbooks) visualised them as tiny balls. You may well, at some level, persist with this model without really realising it.

Later, if you were taught about the periodic table, you were encouraged to believe that your tiny balls (I’m so sorry, I grew up with the Carry On movies and went to an all-boys grammar school) were in fact, made of even tinier balls, some in the middle which you called protons and neutrons (you score half-credit of you got croutons and futons) and some electrons whizzing around the outside.

If you went further, this picture got complicated by s, p and d orbitals and if you got further than that then I’m probably preaching to the converted.

What a good physics teacher will get you to realise is that none of these models are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ or ‘how stuff actually is’ but simply tools to help us to predict what will happen in some interaction. (I realise that I’ve used an example that’s more, in terms of your school experience, about chemistry but it’s the most concise on to describe…)

The ability to hold multiple, sometimes conflicting models in one’s head, critically evaluate and use them appropriately is a core skill in developing a deep, transferable understanding of physics.

In addition, good physics instruction will encourage students to comprehend and contextualise very large and very small numbers (often through the use of techniques like Fermi problems) and to link together learning from other areas of science, so that we learn to understand everything else with the same tools. It encourages scepticism, rationality and the belief that anything can be understood. Contrary to some popular views, physics is not a dogmatic subject, far from it – the history of the subject is one of models being tried, broken and rewritten in the light of better evidence.

Many of the problems that society is  currently addressing through screaming, denial, accusation, muck-raking, name-calling and outright, frothing hysteria, revolve around complex issues that might be fruitfully explored by a nuanced exploration of the available evidence, whilst simultaneously allowing possibly conflicting explanations to coexist – allowing that both may be useful tools without representing a whole picture or an unassailable truth.

It works perfectly well in the world of physics. Particle physicists are well able to debate the various permutations of the Standard Model, String Theories and Quantum Gravitation without resorting to anything more impolite than impenetrable mathematics.

Personally, I’d trust Stephen Hawking and Neil Degrasse Tyson to run the world a lot more than Trump and Putin.

Of course, I learned some physics…

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