By Marcus Wilson 14/03/2017

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.

Einstein: never did an experiment in his life.

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.

Featured image: Simulated Higgs Boson data from the Large Hadron Collider / Wikimedia. 

0 Responses to “Physics is a science. Or maybe not.”

  • That view of physics is of course wrong. We stress in our program that everything is based upon experiment. Yes, the theorists can predict, but until these predictions are supported by experiments they are only predictions. All one has to do is to look at the experimental history of physics to realize it is a science and not applied math. Theorists often have an over inflated belief of their importance.

    • That’s what I thought. But evidently not all physicists share this view. Incidentally, I saw one of Brian Cox’s programmes on television here last night – talking about the ultimate fate of the universe. I noted that the large majority of what was presented was theoretical in nature, with the details of the observations and analyses that experimental astronomers have done rather glossed over. For example, Cox interviewed Brian Schmidt about the rapidly expanding universe, but there was no discussion of what observations Schmidt had actually made that brought about that conclusion.

  • Goodness, aren’t your students spending hours in Physics Labs fiddling with gauges, gases and gadgets?

    It’s not all virtual experimentation nowadays, is it?

    • Yes they are. But this kind of activity costs money and time and there is a lot of pressure to reduce the costs involved with student learning.

  • Dear Marcus,
    Ahhhhh… I gave up eons ago describing myself as a Physicist (after one too many “I couldn’t do that at school” comments) and started to call myself a Scientist. What do I do now? – Applied mathematician definitely won’t cut it (H1: “I hated maths” will be the most common response). Perhaps “Relationship reconciler” (Maths to the “real-world”) or “Prediction analyst” (close to what I actually do) or perhaps just Soothsayer?
    What do I call myself?
    Your’s in agony,
    (ps to make matters worse I’m an A/Prof in a Department of Medicine)

    • I always refer to myself as being in the Faculty of Science and Engineering, rather than the School of Engineering. That covers more bases. Maybe I should just say ‘University of Waikato’ and leave it at that. Since so many of humanity’s recent strides forward have been very multidisciplinary in nature, perhaps we’d just better stick to ‘human’.

  • Interesting article and yes I did read it all.
    Couple of points , Nikola Tesla was a physicist, was he not ? I suppose most people like to think of him as an electrician He is the man who had the greatest impact on every single humans in existence. With the advent of electricity in our homes and his work with wireless, remote control and resonance, the earths electrical impact.
    Physics translates to understanding the workings of the universe, Einstein, put me off science and generally I find relativity to be more of a religion than a science, as rebuttals of relativity find no media space (Halton Arps treatment by the establishment for his ground breaking science) and anything remotely advocating it are trumpeted instantly. Gravity waves being proven by media when black holes haven’t yet been.
    It seems to be physics should be concentrating on phenomenon rather than theory.

    • Thank you for reading all the article. It’s great when you hear that people are interested in what you have done.

      Yes, for sure Nikola Tesla was a physicist. And an engineer, inventor and thinker. He most certainly has had a great impact on modern life. But Einstein has too. Any time you use an ‘app’ with GPS in it (or just plain GPS), you are drawing from Einstein’s work. If general relativity corrections were absent from GPS calculations, the thing would not work. That’s not to mention the less direct benefits such as use of photons in PET scans (what is a photon? – look up Einstein’s Nobel Prize), nuclear power and so forth. Einstein may not have done the experiments, but his thinking has been highly significant for physics.