A couple of hours ago I gave a talk to the ‘education group’ in the Faculty of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences at the University of Western Australia. Broadly speaking, the audience was a group of physicists and engineers who are interested in education.
I recycled a talk that I’d given a couple of years ago on the role of mathematics in physics – specifically comparing and contrasting how practising physicists and students think about how maths works within physics.
My conclusion from the research I’ve done (based on interviewing students and physicists (you can read it in the Waikato Journal of Education here) was that many students find the statement ‘Physics is a science’ difficult. They would rather prefer to re-write it as ‘Physics is applied mathematics’.
Now, by science here, I mean a body of knowledge based on a systematic, empirical observation of the world. A body of knowledge that is able to generate testable predictions and then accept or reject or refine hypotheses in light of the results of experiments.
I (too naively) assumed that my audience wouldn’t need convincing that physics is a science. Actually, there was some debate on this. One person in particular, a physicist in fact, presented the view that physics is not a science. Biology and Chemistry fit my description of science – being based on experiment – but physics, in its actual outworking, does not. His argument was that the greatest advances in physics have been theoretical and not based on experiment. Quantum mechanics and general relativity are highly theoretical – drawing intensely from mathematics – and any experimental validation of them came long after the theory was accepted (and, in the case of Eddington’s eclipse data, quite possibly fudged). One might put the Higgs Boson into the same category – I suspect that most physicists never doubted that the Higgs Boson would eventually be discovered. That is to say the physics was not based on experiment – the experiments were merely confirming what physics ‘knew’ already. Who is the most famous physicist? Albert Einstein – who never did an experiment in his life. But clearly he was a physicist, not a mathematician.
BUT, his was not the only view. For example, Einstein, the theoretical physicist, obtained his Nobel Prize for his explanation of the photoelectric effect. This was an observed phenomenon that had puzzled physicists – results just didn’t fit with the understanding of the time. And what about the ultraviolet catastrophe? So theoretical approaches were not made in the absence of experiment – there were some uncomfortable phenomena around that were prompting thinking.
So, back to my point. “Physics is a science” being uncomfortable for students of physics. It is clearly not just students that find this uncomfortable. Is that a reason why, perhaps, the University of Western Australia has now moved ‘physics’ out of the Faculty of Science and put it in with engineering (which Waikato did many years ago)?
And, if physicists can’t agree on what physics is, what hope is there convincing students that they should study it? Maybe I should just surrender and become an engineer.