An advantage of being the Editor is that I can express my thoughts in the belief that others will pay attention. It is the same sort of self-delusion of teachers and parents. This is my last chance, my last issue. The new Editor, Beth Parks, will be wielding the metaphorical red pencil starting in September. I suspect that there will be many improvements that I never quite got around to. As for the quality of the papers, that is up to you. Post-September, I could, I suppose, submit “guest” editorials, but that would require me to show some restraint. Without the suffocating need for restraint, I will now share my pondering about a connection I think worth pondering: It is the way we can see the “two cultures” meme playing out right now.
If you are reading this, you are fascinated with physics. There are many reasons for this. It is, for one thing, miraculous that there are patterns in nature and that we understand many of them. But part of the fascination—for some, the major part—is how arcane it is, how unexpected it is, how strange it is, and how far it is from the obvious. What draws us into the wonderful confusion of physics is the thrill of discovering how the physical world, below the surface, is very different from the surface.
We are not normal. Frustrated new physics instructors often ask “Why can't they be more like us?” Studies (really, I could cite them) show that we are not like our students and that we are in the minority. If “normal” means to be in the majority, then our students are normal; we are not. They should be asking why we can't be more like them. We are useful, but we are not normal.
We are strangely different. Most people find comfort in having appearance and reality pretty much coincide. The Sun goes around the Earth. If a fair coin comes up heads three times in a row, it is more likely than not to come up tails in the next throw. Time is a universal clock for everyone and everywhere. But the world does not work according to these obvious truths. The obvious nature of things, the geocentric system, the Monte Carlo fallacy, and Galilean relativity are not the way the world works, and for us, that makes the world much more interesting. Of course, people differ greatly in what appeals to them. (I am told that, for instance, there are people who like vichyssoise.)
In looking for a key word to capture the essence of this difference between us and the “normal,” I could think of nothing much better than “immediacy.” For many (most?) people, immediacy is what appeals and may be all that is acceptable. What is seen, what is experienced, is firmly held as a crucial part of what can be accepted as reality. In physics, we accept that reality is more subtly and wonderfully hidden.
We don't have to look to modern physics to see this distinction. The first year of university physics typically starts with a semester of mechanics and the non-immediacy of acceleration. You teach Newtonian mechanics, then throw a ball vertically, and ask about the acceleration at the very top of its motion. What is its acceleration? The class can be counted on to give the obvious but wrong answer zero. After all, at the top of its motion, it is not moving! How can it be accelerating? Unlike velocity, acceleration is a derived quantity and it lacks immediacy.
But the subtlety of acceleration pales in comparison with the dark roast of the field concept introduced in the second half of that university physics course. Electrical force is grudgingly accepted after the brainwashing of Newtonian physics in the first half-year. But the electrical field? Is it real? Or is it “just” a construct. In any case, the introduction of the field concept represents the first big step for the students away from immediacy; in a Freudian sense, it is the toilet training of the physics student. It is well known (no, I can't cite studies) that many students who were fine with mechanics and who may have done fine with it in an AP course in high school have difficulties with the field concept.
It gets worse—much worse after that—special relativity, perhaps in the sophomore year with the claims of such “nonsense” as twins aging at different rates. This claim does excite the minority of students who are destined (doomed?) to pursue physics careers, but for the immune herd, the only question is whether it will be on the test. The clash between the obvious and the true is evident in the fact that journals, this one especially, still receive submission debunking the explanation relativity gives for the twin paradox.
Then, we have the sigh for teaching quantum mechanics in which we, abnormal ourselves, often adopt a research version of “Is it going to be on the exam?” A popular attitude is to shut up, calculate, and never to fully accept what is most lacking of immediacy.
Why am I writing this now? It is the connection to COVID-19.
It is well established that the main mechanism for the spread of this disease is person-to-person transmission. In regions in which—until recently—low population density has meant low disease incidence, the danger of this pandemic is not immediate. It comes only in the message of statistics, Pearson helps us, the ultimate distancing of immediacy. What follows is the too common vision that COVID-19 is just like a bad case of the flu, and we don't wear face masks for flu, do we? This is part of herd incredulity. If no one around you has suffered through COVID-19, if no one you know has had it, if no one you know even knows someone who has had it, then the statistics that prove that this is coming to get you lack immediacy. “Statistics!” you snort in dismissal. Indeed, for those in such regions, in such population segments, “pandemic” has some of the taste of acceleration, field, and the uncertainty principle.
Our fear and the resistance to be enormously inconvenienced are based on mathematics and models, the probing beneath the surface. It's too easy not to take these distancing steps seriously until confronted with the immediacy of the first terrible example of a bad case of the disease.
Few things are simple, and this is not one of them. I can cite an obvious flaw in the separation of immediacists and us being abnormal: attitudes toward religion. The new slant on the two cultures still seems interesting to me, but is it of any value? Can we apply what we have learned to be effective in teaching the non-obvious? Is there a “hands on” way of increasing the immediacy of COVID-19 that does not involve medical danger? Perhaps all it can do is make us more tolerant of those who see only what is immediate. We know from decades of trying to teach physics how difficult it is to make a change in the way the world is parsed. As in teaching, understanding the learning problem and being tolerant of the learner are important first steps.