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Should 16–18 year olds be taught modern physics such as quantum mechanics?

By James Dacey

Facebook poll

Earlier this week, my colleague Hamish Johnston wrote this blog entry about a new video that is highly critical of high-school physics education in the US. The video, presented as an open letter to President Barack Obama, bemoans the fact that current curricula in the US focus almost exclusively on classical physics and exclude modern physics such as quantum mechanics almost entirely. The narrator claims that the vast majority of high-school students are not required to learn about any physical phenomena discovered or explained more recently than 1865 (presumably a reference to the year that James Clerk Maxwell published the first version of his famous equations).

The narrator, Henry Reich, is a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada. Reich has released the video on his popular YouTube channel, Minute Physics, in the belief that physics education in the US needs a serious revamp. He argues that the US may lose its standing as the leading nation of innovation unless modern physics concepts such as photons and the structure of atoms are introduced into high-school curricula. He compares the present situation to a scenario in which high-school biology students were not taught about DNA, or geology students were not taught about plate tectonics. For those of you not familiar with the school system in the US, high school refers to students up to 18 years old.

But what do you think about Reich’s sentiments? In theory it would be lovely for all teenagers to be exposed to some of the wonderful ideas of modern physics such as the Higgs boson, antimatter or the cosmological models of how the universe evolved. But the reality is that truly getting to grips with some of these concepts requires an advanced level of maths, which has not always been reached by 18 year olds. The narrator addresses the maths question by saying that great communicators such as Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson have triumphed at conveying the fundamental principles of physics in an engaging manner without the need for advanced maths. But, again, the reality is that these people are exceptional – one cannot expect all school teachers to be as gifted at communicating difficult physics as these celebrated TV presenters.

Let us know what you think in this week’s poll.

Should 16–18 year olds be taught modern physics such as quantum mechanics?

Yes, the whole shebang
Yes, but only the ideas not the complex mathematics
No, at this age students should focus on classical principles

To have your say please visit our Facebook page, and please feel free to post a comment to explain your decision.

In last week’s poll we asked another question relating to US politics. We asked you to grade Barack Obama’s governance of US science during his first presidential term? The spread of results was as follows.

A – Awesome 0%
B – Brave effort given the economic constraints 24%
C – Could have done better 44%
D – Dreadful 32%

So in the heads and hearts of our Facebook followers, Obama has his work cut out to meet their expectations in his second term. We hope to hear from you again in this week’s poll. And I’ll make you a promise now that next week’s poll will have nothing to do with US politics!

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  1. Maryam

    I think that teaching quantum physics and other aspects of modern physics is no longer an option; it is a dire requirement. This study can be limited to lesser mathematics portion, and greater physics knowledge about the phenomena of particle nature. These concepts are highly complex, and it would be a bonus to physics students aspiring to study theoretical physics at university level. Plus, students already have access to the internet regarding information on developments in modern physics, but due to the vague quality of these concepts, students tendvto feel alienated by this field. No wonder that popularity of physics and math unoversity courses is decreasing by the day in the US. Plus being a uigj school student myself, i feel that such a procedure would highly improve appreciation for the beaity of physics, which is sheer crucial

  2. Andreas

    Without the math, all the chances are that 90% of the students will develope the wrong ideas about quantum physics. There are also thousands of biology students who think Evolution is all about random changes and the MAN is the final and glorious product of all this process (they may partly be right but for the wrong reasons). It is very hard to convince somebody that he/she got it wrong in school, even if the difference is in one word or in a coma. We don’t want them to learn these important things like religion. I propose to teach most of the “Modern” physics as a two years (mandatory) “History of Science and Art”, a course – which together with philosophy – are absent in most of the high schools of the World.


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