Richard Feynman, Book Critic

Well, almost. One of the thing’s that’s been on my mind a lot lately is the difficulty of introducing physics to children at an early age without simplifying the concepts so much that you end up just lying to them or terminally confusing them. This in turn got me thinking about how just downright awful a number of the physics textbooks I’ve seen in my day are, which made me want to share this anecdote with you all, from Dr. Feynman’s celebrated collection of reminiscences, “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.”

It doesn’t make you feel better about the state of textbooks in our world, but it does make you happy that there are people like Feynman out there. And if you’re me, it makes you happy about the career path you’re pursuing.

By the way, here’s another thing Feynman once said, which always makes me feel better when I’ve been banging my head against a physics problem for a long time and I feel like I’m not making any progress. It helps to know that a guy like this can sympathize.


About Colin West
Colin West is a graduate student in quantum information theory, working at the Yang Institute for Theoretical Physics at Stony Brook University. Originally from Colorado (where he attended college), his interests outside of physics include politics, paper-folding, puzzles, playing-cards, and apparently, plosives.

3 Responses to Richard Feynman, Book Critic

  1. Moominmamma says:

    I am curious as to why you have been thinking about the topic of introducing physics to children at an early age. Is this something you could write more about?

  2. Colin West says:

    It could be. If I had any particular reason to have been thinking about it :-P. Mostly, there was a group of elementary students at Stony Brook the other day chattering about physics, which reminded me of how much I used to love to see the elementary school groups come past CU to see the planetarium and our scale-model solar system which in turn (for complicated reasons) got me thinking about stargazing with dad and about the cool experiments with water and fluid pressure Mrs. Ferguson gave me to take home and do when I was in first grade, which (finally) got me wondering about how early I got started thinking about the world “scientifically” and whether I might be different if I hadn’t had a chemist for a father and a lot of good teachers who convinced me that science was more than just a confusing novelty at an early age.

    If I get a chance, perhaps I can elaborate a bit. But really that’s mostly the only reason.

  3. Moominmamma says:

    I have had this post and Richard Feynmann’s criticisms in my mind for a few days now. I wish I knew more about some of Feynmann’s objections. I have no knowledge of the history of science textbooks. Part of me can absolutely imagine that they were terrible, but part of me thinks that in some ways they must have been very accurate, even advanced compared to today’s, because they were not “dumbed down” to make them accessible to the average student. At least not at the high school level. Maybe the elementary books he was looking at were really terrible. There is a serious juggling act (or a better analogy may be a highwire act) to be achieved when introducing science to youngsters. Developmentally, they are just not capable of the abstract thought necessary to understand many scientific concepts. Does introducing simpler versions of science hinder them later? Are they receiving inaccurate information that is difficult to “correct” later? I need the expert scientists to tell me that. As single citizens most of us don’t have the scientific knowledge to make sense of the world and the science-related issues it faces, so clearly something is very wrong in the way we approach science education.

    With this post in mind I stopped cruising through the upper end of my tv station choices last Friday night at an episode of “The Magic School Bus” (how I miss Bill Moyers!) and watched as Ms. Frizzle and the kids played a game of baseball on a field that had no friction. Twice during the show “friction” was referred to as something the field either “had” or “didn’t have” , which was clearly wrong. It came off sounding like gravity-you either stick to the planet or you don’t. Was this the wrong thing to do, though? What might they have done to be more accurate? And if the show’s goal was to introduce the idea of friction to youngsters in elementary school (who wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to the idea until high school, or possibly in junior high), isn’t this good enough? I dunno, as the minister said.

    This discussion also reminds me of a trip Dad and I took to the Boston Science Museum back in ’87. This is around the time when “hands on” museums were just beginning to be the newest, boldest, best move in bringing science to youngsters in ways that weren’t just theoretical. While the exhibits were well designed and interesting, the behavior of the youngsters at the museum was absolutely appalling. I don’t mean appalling in the sense that they were rude or obnoxious, I mean appalling in the sense that the kids were all just running from exhibit to exhibit, pushing buttons to make lights go or things twirl, and there was no point to any of it for them besides having pretty flashy things entertain them for 3 or 5 seconds. This clearly doesn’t seem good to me, but the same displays or clever experiments in the hands of someone like Mrs. Ferguson and a few students (not necessarily a whole class-I think this works best in very small groups) can seem to do wonders.

    I don’t remember any science education in elementary school before sixth grade. Oh, except for a rock collection in fourth grade. My biggest takeaway from that experience was that if you spit on a rock and it smelled like mud, it was sedimentary. I still like to spit on rocks and smell them (though now I can tell sedimentary by looking at it most of the time).I have learned more about geology from visiting national parks and knowing geologists than I ever learned in school. In sixth grade my teacher spent the entire class writing notes in outline form on the board, and we were to copy them and turn them in for a grade. I kid you not. I remember something about U-shaped valleys and V-shaped valleys. I remember working diligently to copy the notes neatly so I would get a good grade. We occasionally had a project to do. I think one might have been a bug collection. eeeew.

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