Physics Face

Thursday night, I needed to work late, so rather than upset the dog by going home for dinner, and then leaving, I went for sushi at a local restaurant. I had a very pleasant meal, which I spent reading through the first few chapters of the textbook I plan to use for my Quantum Optics class next term (to make sure it will work for my purposes), and listening to the woman at the table next to me talk to her kids (ages 7 and 9, and cutely overactive).

Eventually, the kids wandered off to go pester the sushi chef (they’re apparently regulars), and their mother asked me “What is it you’re reading that’s so engrossing?” I explained that it was a textbook for my class next term, and she asked what I teach.

When I said “Physics,” she made The Face. “Oh, I hated that when I took it in high school.”

I’m sure this probably happens to people in other sciences as well (if the attitudes of British schoolchildren are any guide…), but I think The Face is especially bad for physics. For whatever reason, physics seems to be a particularly unpleasant experience for a great many people, all of whom later feel compelled to share their bad experiences with any physicists they happen to meet.

Interestingly, earlier that day, we had heard a presentation from a visiting speaker about physics education research. It was mostly pretty standard stuff, talking up the benefits of “active engagement” classes, and Peer Instruction and all that sort of thing. Mixed in there, though, was a bit I hadn’t heard before, regarding student expectations and attitudes towards science.

The basic results she mentioned are pretty much the same as this paper from the physics education research group at Maryland. The authors constructed a survey designed to measure student attitudes toward physics, based on whether they agreed or disagreed with various statements:


#1: All I need to do to understand most of the basic ideas in this course is just read the text, work most of the problems, and/or pay close attention in class.

#14:. Learning physics is a matter of acquiring new knowledge that is specifically located in the laws, principles, and equations given in the textbook and in class.

#4: “Problem solving” in physics basically means matching problems with facts or equations and then substituting values to get a number.

#19: The most crucial thing in solving a physics problem is finding the right equation to use.

(More after the cut…)

i-8b9b5291ef2f081e45ea47e6f1fa5210-sm_expf2a.gifThe responses were deemed “favorable” or “unfavorable” based on whether they agreed with the responses of a calibration group of experts (professional physicists and educators). These responses were used to generate graphs of favorable vs. unfavorable responses, like the one at left (click for a slightly larger version). The blue cross in the upper left represents the average of the “expert” responses (89% “favorable” overall), while the other symbols represent introductory classes at various institutions.

The striking thing about this is that the green symbols are from a pre-test, while the red symbols are the same sets of students taking the test again after one semester of college physics. For every class, at every type of institution studied, the red points are farther from the “expert” responses than the green points. College physics classes, it seems, make students take a less favorable view of the subject.

The data in that paper are kind of old, but according to Thursday’s speaker, the trend continues today. And even the “active engagement” classes that produce stellar results on tests of conceptual learning show the same trend: on average, the student responses become less favorable. The very best classes apparently manage to keep the students about where they started, but nobody has yet figured out how to move a whole class in the direction of the “experts.” (Obviously, some small fraction of those students must move toward the “expert” responses, because some small fraction of them will go on to become physicists…)

This probably goes a long way toward explaining the reaction of the woman at dinner (I’m not singling her out because her reaction was particularly remarkable– I’ve had hundreds of people make The Face at me over the years. She just happened to do it on the same day as an interesting talk…). If people are leaving the intro classes with a lower opinion of physics than they entered with, it’s no surprise that people in restaurants make faces when I tell them what I do (I have a hard time avoiding a grimace when I meet literary theorists, after all). It also probably explains why something like three percent of students taking introductory physics ever take another class in the subject.

It’s also a large part of the reason why I don’t get all that worked up over the various “women in physics” threads that come around again and again. While the question of why our field is apparently unattractive to women is an important one, it’s a distant second to the question of why our field is so singularly unappealing to, well everybody. If the data showed that men have an overwhelmingly positive attitude toward physics, and women have a negative view, then the gender issue would be a major concern, but that’s not what we see. Nobody likes us– as I said above, the number of students who take physics beyond the introductory level is something like 3% (or at least that’s the factoid I remember from an AAPT workshop a couple of years ago). And the people who make The Face when hearing about my job come in all sizes, shapes, and genders.

I suspect that if we were to figure out why the introductory classes are so unsuccessful at conveying a correct impression of what we do, that would go a long way toward identifying the causes of the gender imbalance (at least, those that are under the control of physicists at the college level), and we’d be in a better position to do something about it. And then maybe I’d see an occasional happy face when I tell people what I do.

Comments

  1. #1 Mary Kay
    January 23, 2006

    Ha! Try telling people you’re an English teacher. You get all sorts of snarky comments about ‘minding my grammar’. As if I were going to correct someone I didn’t even know. Sometimes I wonder if I went back to school and got the MLS just so I wouldn’t have to deal with that any more.

    MKK

  2. #2 Craig Pennington
    January 23, 2006

    I hated HS Physics — because I took it pre-calc, it was not intuitive to me. In undergraduate, I loved it because the “trust me” formulae I was given in HS were justified. I almost had enough credits to minor in Physics and would have if my Uni had allowed double major w/a minor (I was math/cs — plus I had enough credits for a minor in Russian as well — I loved Uni.)

  3. #3 TheAvenger
    January 23, 2006

    Did you consider the possibility that students actually do get a correct impression of what you do, and more importantly of who you are? With a few notable exceptions, physicists just are not likable people. Arrogant, pompous idiot savants are the norm.

  4. #4 Mike Procario
    January 23, 2006

    The reaction that I dislike and worry about most is from doctors. I will go to a doctor for a medical problem and as he examines me, he asks what I do for a living. I respond that I am a physicist, and I get the old “I hated physics” or “I barely passed physics” reply.

  5. #5 Chad Orzel
    January 23, 2006

    TheAvenger: Did you consider the possibility that students actually do get a correct impression of what you do, and more importantly of who you are? With a few notable exceptions, physicists just are not likable people. Arrogant, pompous idiot savants are the norm.

    I like to think that my colleagues and I have more social skills than that, but I suppose it’s possible that we’re all kidding ourselves…

    Mike Procario: The reaction that I dislike and worry about most is from doctors. I will go to a doctor for a medical problem and as he examines me, he asks what I do for a living. I respond that I am a physicist, and I get the old “I hated physics” or “I barely passed physics” reply.

    The Face is particularly bad with doctors, mostly because they’re required to take physics for the MCAT’s, and it’s just another hazing ritual for them. I don’t think they’re given a coherent justification as to why it’s important (or if they are, I wish somebody would tell me why it’s important), and it’s a difficult class for many of them. They end up really resenting it.

    Of course, physics TA’s and some faculty end up resenting them in turn…

  6. #6 tim
    January 23, 2006

    I used to think it was a “physics face,” too. I complained about it to an English professor friend – but that professor gets the same face, just as MKK notes above. I didn’t believe it at first, but whenever I’ve seen this prof get asked what her field is and she answers “English,” she gets the Face. So I think *that* problem may be something else – some broader anti-intellectualism.

  7. #7 Pam
    January 23, 2006

    The thing that really gets me about the “OH, I HATE PHYSICS!” reaction is that people seem to have no compunction in vehemently expressing their total contempt for your professional interests. Pedagogical failures notwithstanding, whatever happened to *manners*?

  8. #8 Dave Munger
    January 23, 2006

    I’m not teaching anymore, but when Greta tells people she’s a psychologist, she frequently get’s that “ooh — you’re not going to psychoanlize me” comment. Then the next five minutes is spent explaining that she’s not that sort of psychologist.

  9. #9 Jake
    January 23, 2006

    Ignoring for the moment the attacks on physicists and the general public, what if physics just isn’t very fun? I mean, I’m a software guy, and I can’t count the number of people who say they could never sit in an office in front of a computer all day, or who say they just can’t understand the way computers operate, while I find it quite possibly one of the most entertaining jobs that I can imagine.

    When I look at physical activities that people do for fun, not only is there frequently a learning curve where they get more fun the better you are, but there’s also some sort of dynamic where in order to get that good you need to take a different learning path through the earlier stages – emphasizing good technique vs. going out and enjoying yourself – that probably turns off those without a strong interest.

    If the same thing is going on in Physics, it might be that the introductory class that gets people interested in physics and an introductory class that starts you down a track that will let you be successful as a physics grad student, much less a physicist, are not the same thing.

  10. #10 razib
    January 23, 2006

    It also probably explains why something like three percent of students taking introductory physics ever take another class in the subject.

    well, the vast majority of people taking physics take it as a requirement for biology, chemistry and other sciences, including pre-meds. a higher proportion of people taking biology probably become take biology courses later in part because biology is not a requirement for chemistry (except biochemistry) and physics, so you have a more select sample.

    of course, physics is hard. material matters. all disciplines get The Face, but there are many more english, psychology and biology majors than physics majors, so we shouldn’t pretend as if there isn’t a difference.

  11. #11 Dr. Free-Ride
    January 23, 2006

    I always enjoyed physics and briefly (while slogging through organic chemistry) entertained the idea of switching from being a chemistry major to being a physics major. Thermo (in the chem department) brought me back to the fold …

    The factoid I found interesting at my own college was that most of the people who elected to major in physics (a relatively small number, to be sure) had not taken physics in high school. My hunch was that high school physics (taught without calculus) made people so hate physics that they couldn’t imagine wanting to major in it; those who got it fresh (taught well, and with calculus) in college could appreciate it.

    But this was about 20 years ago, so things may have changed.

  12. #12 a cornellian
    January 23, 2006

    I would take the number of students who continue with a grain of salt. You have to take in to consideration engineering schools. Every engineer at Cornell is required to take 4 semesters between chem/physics and at least one of each. A lot of these people still apply physics to what they do, they just don’t go in to pure physics. [this is a thousand something vs 30ish physics majors per year] This also leaves out physical chemists and such. Also, does this incldue applied and engineering physics [there are more of them at cornell than pure physics i think]

    As for physicists being unsocial, I prefer to spend as much of my time as possible with hard science/engineer types. I mean, go observe the spectacle that is http://www.collegehumor.com, and tell me that everyone else is socially well adjusted (to be fair, i know nothing about the majors of everyone on that site, but given the small number of physics undergrads out there we can’t be the majority of that site. I do know that that is not representative of my friends here). Also, is it socially acceptable to hold business major in contempt?

    Having recently been through the intro courses and such I have some babble about why people might not like them. One such case is my girlfriend who (before i started dating her) was having massive amounts of trouble with physics. Eventually I ended up helping her study for a final, and as we were going though stuff it seemed pretty clear that while they had gone through and done a relatively good job of teaching the tools of physics, she knew all the standard E&M formulas better than I did off the top of my head, only she hadn’t been taught any connection to something physical or how they related to each other. In a few hours we went through enough stuff that she raised her grade by about a whole letter after the final.

    It is easy to tell someone that the electric field in a capacitor is (ignoring edge effects) perpendicular to the plates is one thing, and if you just say it some people will memorize it and the mechanical steps to reach it, it is another thing to get people to see the symmetries (well, if you model it as two infinite planes of charge) so they don’t have to “memorize” anything, but can reason out quickly why it needs to be that way are two very different things. The first, particularly combined with somewhat mean problems on tests, could lead to confusion and dislike of physics, the second leads to the belief that physics is beautiful.

    Also being a student i’m going to point out grades as a problem. If you tell people they are going to be graded in a class, it becomes less important to learn, than to get a good grade. You can’t teach a class completely in abstract, otherwise you could write F = ma, p_i = p_f, v= dx/dt, a = dv/dt and be pretty much done with mechanics. But when you start going in to details of what is going on in specific cases people start going “ok, this is the cook book to solve this” only this isn’t really what you want to do. An example of people doing this is oen fo my room mates freshmen year. He is a bio/chem major and a pre-med with the goal to get better than a 4.0 average. Avoiding a long story, he had gotten so in to memorizing facts that he forgot to think. The other example is a peer who is in my math classes, he is a monster at math, but is completely lost in physics. The reason seems to be that in math there are rules, they are not arbitrary rules (well, past the axioms) but still just rules that only need to be self consistent. He is evidence that you can be very good at math by simply meticulously memorizing the rules from the ground up and carefully and at great length applying them. (no one get huffy i’m picking on math, what i mean by “be very good” is “get good grades”, he does not plan to go in to mathematics and hated his research he did last semester and quit it)

    So, I have now started babbling and forgot quite where i was going. I think my point is that in order to enjoy physics you need to connect the math on the paper to the real world in the right way. That is the missing link in what is taught. It up for debate is some people see this easier than others (this seems un PC, but does anyone deny that some people are more musically gifted than others) or if it can be taught effectively.

    Sorry this is so long

  13. #13 Barry
    January 23, 2006

    The Avenger: “With a few notable exceptions, physicists just are not likable people. Arrogant, pompous idiot savants are the norm.”

    You must be thinking of economists. Or, to be fair, string theorists.

  14. #14 Arcane Gazebo
    January 23, 2006

    I’ve seen the Physics Face often enough, but it doesn’t really bother me. I mean, I like the opera, but opera is inaccessible and not to everyone’s taste, so I will often see the Opera Face when I bring it up, and I don’t see this as a flaw in music education. It seems like the same sort of thing with physics: a certain amount of scientific literacy in the general public is a good thing, but most people aren’t going to have the passion for it that we do.

    In fact, I would argue that too many people are passionate about physics–there are many more physics PhDs seeking academic jobs than there are jobs available. (Although it’s better than it used to be.) As a result, postdocs work very long hours under low wages and poor working conditions in order to stay competitive for one of the few available academic jobs. What we really need is to make physics harder and less accessible, so as to improve the quality of life for those who do go into the field. (I’m joking, of course. What we actually need to do is unionize.)

    As for TheAvenger’s comment, I’ve found that the vast majority of my colleagues are socially well-adjusted and completely pleasant to talk to. There’s a tendency towards introversion (which is by no means uniform) and a certain number of one-dimensional personalities who spend all their time in lab, but for the most part you can do worse than hanging out with physicists.

  15. #15 Chad Orzel
    January 23, 2006

    Razib: well, the vast majority of people taking physics take it as a requirement for biology, chemistry and other sciences, including pre-meds.

    I’m not sure if that factoid includes the usual pre-med courses, but it’s a good point. Likewise, the cornellian’s similar comment about engineering.

    Of course, the fact that something is a requirement doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be despised in retrospect. I retain fond memories of at least some of my humanities classes, for example. But then, I’m a weird guy.

    The other aspect of the data that’s worth noting is that it’s not just that people leave with a negative feeling about the subject, it’s also that they leave with even bigger misconceptions about the subject than they had when they came in. I’d be ok with people thinking that physics is just really dfficult, and not for them, but when they think it’s boring and memorization-based, that indicate a problem.

    In particular, stories like this:

    Having recently been through the intro courses and such I have some babble about why people might not like them. One such case is my girlfriend who (before i started dating her) was having massive amounts of trouble with physics. Eventually I ended up helping her study for a final, and as we were going though stuff it seemed pretty clear that while they had gone through and done a relatively good job of teaching the tools of physics, she knew all the standard E&M formulas better than I did off the top of my head, only she hadn’t been taught any connection to something physical or how they related to each other. In a few hours we went through enough stuff that she raised her grade by about a whole letter after the final.

    That’s the result of somebody doing a disastrously bad job of teaching the introductory classes. Or, rather, somebody doing what ought to be seen as a disastrously bad job teaching the introductory classes, were it not so depressingly typical.

    Dr. Free-Ride: I always enjoyed physics and briefly (while slogging through organic chemistry) entertained the idea of switching from being a chemistry major to being a physics major. Thermo (in the chem department) brought me back to the fold …

    See, that’s funny, because thermo in the chem department (in grad school) was almost enough to make me get out of science altogether…

    (I found thermodynamics pretty unpleasant both times I took it, but the grad school version was particularly bad.)

    Finally, I should note that people who make the Physics Face aren’t exactly pelting me with rotting fruit for being a physicist. Many of them will go on to ask some interesting questions about what I do, and they often respond positively to my cocktail-party spiel about laser cooling. They haven’t been completely turned off from finding physics interesting, they’ve just been given a bad impression of what it’s about.

  16. #16 janet
    January 23, 2006

    I think The Face is a defensive reaction. People who didn’t do well in physics (or English, or whatever subject) often feel the need to make it clear that the problem was the subject, not them.

  17. #17 Bob Oldendorf
    January 23, 2006

    I find the ‘Math Response’ to be even more remarkable thant the Physics Face.

    Tell the ordinary person that they’ll need to use this or that equation to solve the (real-world) problem they’ve encountered, and they’ll tell you “Oh, I was never any good at math”.

    But they’ll say it with PRIDE, with a smile on their face. I’ve never understood this attitude: they might as well be admitting that “Oh, abstract reasoning is completely beyond me”. Maybe it’s a coping mechanism for people who are embarassed by their limitations, but every time I encounter it (which is about every single time a co-worker needs to do some arithmetic), it creeps me out.

  18. #18 Wheatdogg
    January 23, 2006

    I teach high school physics and I get The Face from parents, usually during parent-teacher open house at the beginning of the year. The comments here about physics in college and high school are very interesting. I think I do a pretty good job teaching it; at least, my students say they enjoy it. At our school, we offer three levels of physics: Conceptual (using the Hewitt book), trig-based (using Cutnell & Johnson) and AP (calculus based, using Tipler). I gave up on high school texts 20 years ago, because they were so horrible — the cookbook-solution type previous commentors have mentioned. I have the freedom to pick my texts; it’s a private school. My public school colleagues are stuck with whatever text their state chooses.

    It’s worth noting that only 20% of high school students actually take physics before college, and of those that do, it’s a big question how qualified their teachers are. So, if colleges are expecting high schools to funnel students into physics courses, it’s not going to happen any time soon. The current track puts bio first, then chem, then phys in most schools. Ninth graders might take a general science or physical science class, and many high schools require at best three science credits. So, why would a high school senior elect to take physics?

    There is a movement to put “Physics First,” as a conceptual class in the 9th grade. So the situation may change.

  19. #19 outeast
    January 24, 2006

    As a maker of The Physics (and Maths) Face (or at least of the pained, hunted look in the eyes), may I suggest it’s more a fear reaction than a defensive reaction (as janet suggests, above)? It’s the ‘oh shit, I’m now in conversation with someone who has it in their power to makwe me feel hopelessly inedequate’ reaction; it’s ‘please accept that I am likely to appear stupid to you,’ with a soupcon of ‘I’m making a silly face because I don’t have a tail to put betwen my legs…’

  20. #20 outeast
    January 24, 2006

    Addendum: This is beacause we assume that you guys really can think in n-dimensions (and with extra stringiness…).

  21. #21 Ben V-L
    January 24, 2006

    The alternative to the Face is “that must be handy when your washing machine breaks”. I’m a theorist. And actually I am handy with household appliances. But that has nothing to do with my being a physicist.

    I have a self-imposed rule to touch nothing but the floor whenever I am in a physics lab, which has the advantage that my experimentalist colleagues don’t hate me for breaking their equipment. I’ve never met an oscilloscope whose buttons did what the manual says they should do.

  22. #22 wheatdogg
    January 24, 2006

    Outeast –
    Yes, we have that power, but with power comes responsibility. The wisest physicists act absent-minded and somewhat scattered, thereby concealing that awful power behind a clever facade. Hahahahah!

  23. #23 Mary Kay
    January 25, 2006

    Somebody’s having a bad day I guess! Most of the physicists I know are charming and interesting folks. Yes, I do know quite a few; I’m a certified Physics Groupie. My husband has a BS in Physics (and EE), and a PhD in Astrophysics, so I think I have a large enough sample to generalize from!

    Mathematicians, now, they’re WEIRD.

    MKK

  24. #24 Roman Werpachowski
    January 25, 2006

    With a few notable exceptions, physicists just are not likable people. Arrogant, pompous idiot savants are the norm.
    I strongly disagree. I know many physicists. Most of them are easygoing people with a sense of humour. Some of them are brilliant. The number of arrogants and idiots is much lower than the national average.

    At our school, we offer three levels of physics: Conceptual (using the Hewitt book), trig-based (using Cutnell & Johnson) and AP (calculus based, using Tipler).
    I don’t think Tipler is a good choice. I’ve browsed through some chapters of his book available on the net and he wrote pretty stupid things about the wavefunction in quantum mechanics. What happened to good old Halliday and Resnick?

  25. #25 wheatdogg
    February 8, 2006

    Well, Roman, I never get to the QM part of Tipler’s text! Besides I am referring to his Physics for Scientists and Engineers book, which is a survey text, anyway. His problems are good, and I work around the rough spots in the presentation.

    H&R goes back a long way — I had it as a freshman in college and hated the book. Probably why I don’t use it now. Do you have other suggestions?

  26. #26 sister of a physics person
    February 24, 2006

    I understand that many people dislike physics and have stereotypes about it.

    When I was in school, I wasn’t interested in physics but my brothers were. I never thought it strange, just a topic they liked and I didn’t. They never treated me badly about it, nor I, them. They are both charming, good in “English” and out-going. I never knew then that physics-types were considered lacking in “social and communication” skills or “playground cast-offs,” etc.

    Then I had a science teacher whose actions caused me to forego any interest in any science.

    Please read these for some insight into why, perhaps, ‘outsiders’ don’t latch on to physics:
    APS News, May 2005 “Diminished By Discrimination We Scarcely See.” Also, J. Murray Gibson, Argonne NL, in its CSWP (Women’s) Gazette, Fall 2003 “Arrogance: A Dangerous Weapon of the Physics Trade.” At aps.org.

    I can tell you that it seems some physics folks themselves put themselves above others, whether it’s their lack of acceptance of the women coming into physics or lack of acceptance of non-physicists.

    To grown-up Life Shock:
    As a non-physicist who took employment with the American Physical Society (APS), an organization of physicists, I ran into discrimination and maltreatment, even from a “leading” female physicist. I thought there was total disregard for proper work environment, behavior and laws. I have filed a discrimination complaint with the state and federal authorities against APS and it is with the investigation unit.

    No matter how smart we think we are, must remain active in the human world and humble to our weaknesses and humble to the talents of others outside our realm. That’s how we draw others in. It goes both ways.

  27. #27 Briary
    May 25, 2010

    I’m in my last years of medical school, I loathed highschool physics, but really enjoyed the single physics paper I took in my first year of medicine. Mainly because of one tutor who ran optional lunchtime lectures where he encouraged us to think about the problem, and try to figure out how to solve the problem without any equations. Once I started doing that, the equations made sense. Now my physics textbook and pop science physics books are things I go back to in my spare time. And there’re heaps of occasions where the principles I learnt in that paper were useful, particularly in understanding things like respiratory physiology. Not all pre-meds hated physics.