What Physics Is For
... A message to students studying physics for the first time.
The goal of this class is that you learn some physics, enough to impress me and enough to impress the colleges to which you are applying. In furtherance of that goal I will be working very hard for the next nine months, and I expect you will be too.
Throughout the school year, I will be describing many examples of events in the natural world. Some of these events will be very familiar to you. For example, I may describe the act of hitting or kicking or throwing a ball, or the act of playing a musical instrument. And we will discuss and analyze the particulars of these events as physicists see them.
Now, you may spend significant time actually hitting or kicking or throwing the balls we will talk about, or playing the musical instruments we will talk about. Or you may dance or lead cheers or do gymnastics -- what I am going to say applies to pretty much any activity you care deeply about and pursue passionately. You may reach the logical but inaccurate conclusion that I believe the key to understanding these activities is “all in the physics.” You may be tempted, therefore, to view the proceedings and the instructor with skepticism: You know it’s not all in the physics. You know that the essence of things like sport and music does not live in science. You know this intuitively, but it can be explained.
In baseball, players in the middle of a hitting streak say the ball looks “as big as a melon” (or words to that effect). Musicians don’t generally think about physics when they’re playing their instruments. They often can’t even say where the music comes from…it just comes. A popular expression for this feeling not too long ago was “being in the zone.” In the zone, there seems to be no separation between you and the bat and the ball or you and the instrument and the music itself. There is a wonderful convergence of matter and energy and consciousness; an inspiring moment to be alive. Some would say a spiritual moment, although others would say that’s overdoing it a bit.
In any case, science can’t own that moment, because science depends on rational thought, and rational thought requires dispassionate observation. Science requires an observer, the scientist, you. You have to try to be impartial, separate from the action. You can’t be in the zone, and so the essence of the moment is lost.
It seems as though I’ve given you a reason not to study physics, but that’s because you haven’t read the whole essay yet. The physicist in you may be on vacation when you’re in the zone, but the physicist in you and many other physicists as well are involved in creating the environment needed to get there. If you’ve been coached on how to swing a baseball bat, your coach (consciously or unconsciously) was drawing on the physics of a proper swing. And there are good reasons, grounded in physics, why musical instruments look the way they do. Behind the scenes, physics improves just about every activity you can think of.
Knowledge of physics enhances and complements other knowledge you have acquired and will acquire. It is necessary to your being an enlightened person in this modern world -- necessary, but as we have seen, not sufficient.
Studying physics will improve your rational mind, your ability to make decisions based on logic, and your mathematical ability. Studying physics will help you think about your own thinking: It will help you to know when you’re being rational, and when you are making decisions based on faith or impulse.
In a broader sense, physics does not detract from but rather contributes to our sense of wonder as we contemplate the natural world. The theoretical framework constructed by physicists to describe the universe -- objects billions of light-years away, the big bang, black holes, elementary particles small enough to be the building blocks of protons -- is nothing if not wondrous. And that there should be living things such as we with the ability to construct elaborate models to describe the universe -- that’s pretty amazing too.
In short, physics is good for you, and it will be my pleasure to teach it to you.