Understanding Physics in High School

I am wondering if one of the problems that students with a fear of maths and physics have is that their mental concept of what “understanding something” means is not adapted to those subjects.

For example, I had a very intelligent friend in high school who was extremely bad at maths and physics, despite being able to argue extremely logically whenever the topic was not maths or physics. Once she told me that she did not understand what functions were, although this was something we had been using for a while at that point.
A bit shocked, I tried to explain it to her, making drawings, citing examples like “population of the Earth” as a function of “year”, simple functions like mapping x to x+2.
She understood what I was saying, clearly.
Yet she still claimed she did not really understand what functions were.

I have experienced something like that repeatedly when I was teaching. It seemed that people could follow what I was saying step by step, but then they still claimed they didn’t “understand” the big picture.
Maybe they expect to immediately obtain something “more” than understanding the explanation, some sort of intuition that others seem to have, and if it doesn’t happen, they feel like they failed.

Something similar actually has happened to me. When I was 13, geometry freaked me out. I had the impression that people who were good at it, and my teacher, were able to “see” solutions in some mysterious way that I did not have. This was also aided by the snarky teacher who continued finding everything extremely “obvious”.
My grades in geometry were bad, and so, afraid I was going to kicked out of school, I started working like crazy. I worked hours and hours, and yet at test after test, my grades remained bad.

Then, after a long time of trying hard to “see”, I finally lost it. Okay, I thought, I would never “see”. So I decided to try the following protocol: whenever I experienced a new problem, I would remember the about 15 rules of construction we already had learned, apply all that I could, and one would probably lead me closer to the solution. I’m still quite proud that the 13-year old me figured this out by herself, because nobody told me.

And that was it. From that day on, the problem was gone, my grades immediately went up. I still think I do not have a natural talent for geometry, like I have for things like algebra and analysis. But in the end, I even did geometry class at University together with the maths students and got through it fine.
But I still do not “see” in the way that my math teacher was claiming that he and the best boys in our class could “see” solutions, which is perhaps related to me having a hard time rotating 3-d objects in my head. But it turns out this isn’t necessary for solving geometry problems in school.

I suspect that a lot of people may have a similar problem with all of maths and physics. They see people around them solving problems and assume that the way this is done is by deeply seeing through the problem in a way that they can’t and wait for the big insight to happen before they can start solving problems.

However, all physics and maths problems can be solved by nothing else than applying the rules and procedures, until the solution pops up. With time, you will get there faster and not waste as much time as in the beginning, but you will always get there if you try hard enough.

And almost everyone who is willing to put in some effort is able to learn the few and simple rules that govern all of high school maths and physics.

Maybe the problem is the word “understand”. Perhaps we should not use it as much as we do. Gravity is not something to “understand” in the sense like you can “understand” the fact that you might hurt yourself if you walk onto the street with your eyes closed. Gravity just exists. It follows some rules. That’s it; nobody know why gravity is there in the first place. In its core, it is mysterious.

I wonder how it would work to teach with this mindset. Would the students feel unsatisfied? Would they say that they want to learn things that enrich them and give them a feeling of “understanding”, not blindly follow a set of stupid rules? Would they feel like they are just “going through the motions”?

However, on the other hand, if people cannot appreciate the coolness of a physics law like the law of gravity that holds in every corner of the Universe and at every time since the beginning of time, then maybe they will dislike physics anyway and we should not worry about them. To like physics, one has to appreciate rules in some way, but the same is true in any kind of advanced learning.

So maybe, it would be okay to start physics and maths with a speech going like this:

“Students, in the following years of high school, you are going to learn by heart a set of definitions and rules. The set of rules will fit onto 3 A4 pages per subject.
This is all you will need to know to do any problem and any exam that you will encounter ever in our two subjects.
All we are now going to do in the following years is to introduce one rule after the other, and then fill them with life by doing one freaking example after the other, and make all the connections to your daily life that we can, until you are 19 years old and can leave high school. We do not expect you to “see” or “understand” a single thing, nor develop an “intuition”, nor “imagine” anything. If this happens, good for you, if not, no problem.
But remember every rule we teach you, especially in maths, because if you do not know the rules of the first year you will fail every single exam of maths and physics you will ever have. And remember to solve the problems we give you, and not give up until you can solve them well, so that your math and physics muscle can grow and become strong and fun to use. Enjoy!”

Strangely, although this speech is highly uninspiring, and I would not give it to students, it would probably have helped me as a high school student. For me, the fear of geometry, and later of physics, was the main obstacle to overcome and the fear was always that I would not manage to understand or “see”. I would never have obtained this stupid fear if it had been clear to me that physics and maths is a game with rules one can simply learn, and that a feeling of “understanding” might only come later, or never, depending on how high your bar is for saying that you “understand something”, and that this is okay (and, btw, one reason that boys are less afraid of maths and physics because their bar of “understanding something” is often much lower than the bar that girls set for themselves, which due to girls often being raised to be more self-critical than boys).

Posted in Physics, Teaching, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Rant about Interstellar (with SPOILERS)

Yesterday, I went to see Interstellar, Chrisopher Nolan’s new sci-fi movie that sounded very interesting to me, as it features a wormhole and travel to another galaxy, and a dystopian starting point. I was very disappointed though, both in terms of Physics/Logic, storyline and underlying ideology.

So here is what annoyed me:

  1. The movie fluctuates between attempting to be “hard sci-fi” on the one hand and totally cheesy fantasy on the other hand every few minutes. This is extremely annoying. I would have found it easier to just watch a cheesy fantasy. There seemed to be short spells of the movie where I almost found that the physics made sense, only to descend into complete bullshit again. Each time this transition happened, I was completely catapulted out of the story, which was very hard to stay engrossed in anyway.
    There are so many mistakes in logic and physics on so many levels, and the main characters behave absolutely idiotically. Even the most basic plot of the movie suffers from the most simple, stupid time travel paradoxon (person goes back in time in order to tell himself things that will make it possible to go back in time! Some people from the future made us a wormhole that made the future they live in possible!). People behave absolutely idiotically (Just one example: “Going to that other planet will cost us several months of time and fuel! Let’s instead go to the planet where due to time-dilation an hour-long excursion will cost us 7 years, because the planet is closer! Why go there in the first place? Because communication with this the person sent to this planet just broke off recently, and so was sending for several years, so the planet must have great conditions! And we forget conveniently that this means she only sent for 1 hour in her time before she probably died! And we forget to actually take an image of the planet to find out it is completely covered in water and plagued by absolutely impossible waves!” Urgh. So many things like this, it is impossible to list them. The robots are awful. And there are frozen clouds that shatter if you hit them!

3. The neo-conservative, backwards, strangely patriotic (?) ideology behind the movie is what irritated me most though. Here’s some of it:

  1. Earth is becoming inhabitable. This is apparently not because of climate change, no, don’t worry! Everyone in the movie is still driving with huge trucks that seem to burn oil. Conveniently the problems come from some kind of biblical “plagues”, that apparently are impossible to fight, because the bacteria/bugs involved breathe nitrogen, but also produce nitrogen and remove oxygen (how ?!), and somehow there are large dust storms on top of it, who knows why! We don’t see anyone attempting to do anything against these problems.
  2. The only place where anything is apparently still happening on Earth is the American midwest. Here we have the corn fields, the brave farmer that is going to save the world, the physics professor, NASA (by coincidence located nearby the farmer and somehow secretely sending rockets into space) and everything that ever makes an appearance on the scene on Earth. The rest of the world, play absolutely no role, except for a pointless Indian drone. Maybe they have all died? Who cares about that though. At least the first outposts of humanity in another galaxy proudly fly a large American flag.
  3. Apparently, there is no way that the future of the human race can be saved by boring things like climate protocols, biologically fighting the plagues, moving food production to the oceans or underground etc. No, the only way we can be saved is by magic, thinly disguised as “crazy physics” mixed with five-dimensional love, which will enable humanity to colonize a planet in another galaxy. Yes, another galaxy. So the underlying daydream of this movie is that we can gladly devastate Earth because quantum-gravity-love-craziness will teleport us into absolutely crazy distances, leaving behind Earth as far as one could possibly imagine. Our galaxy contains hundreds of millions of stars and planets, but apparently, they are all not suitable and not far away enough. We need a wormhole to another galaxy, that was put there by ourselves from the future, who have apparently managed to map out our galaxy and even other galaxies and found nothing better than the rocky barren planet that is sold as the solution to all problems in the end.
  4. Thanks to an absolutely crazy, wrong scene in which the main protagonist maps out the inside of a black hole, humankind can advance to the next stage and now move in five dimensions, transcend gravity etc! But somehow, all they seem to do with it for now is build big space stations close to Saturn, where they (of course) play baseball! Yes, that is right. We are now being able to manipulate time, gravity and space, but who cares, the most important thing is that we can play baseball on green lawns without those annoying dust storms (phew!), and apparently it was easier to make this happen inside a space station instead of on Earth. Yes, great news, the American sports have survived even though Earth has become inhabitable and our potential new world looks not very inviting either. This is a happy ending, or not?

Add to that a twisted, slightly repulsive love story between father and daughter, whose problems are largely caused by bad communication (why did the father not tell her that he is talking to her from the future directly, and save everyone a lot of time and effort?), shallow and unlikable protagonist, and an over-the-top lenth of 169 minutes.

P.S. Here are  sci-fi/time travel movies that were far more consistent and interesting (all curiously with lower ratings on IMDB than Interstellar): Moon. Primer. Oblivion. Gravity.

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Existential crisis on Linkedin

Isn’t it interesting how the big life insights of people always sound trivial? Like “and then I realized it doesn’t matter what others think.”

This kind of insight is everywhere, in every second self-help book and motivational poster. And yet if people think they have finally understood it, they talk about with shining eyes, like it was a message from heaven that suddenly hit them.

The point is of course that while it is easy to understand intellectually, it is very hard to obtain emotional understanding. This is why preaching to others they should not care what other people think is useless, and why it is also stupid to think that this is a trivial insight. It is trivial intellectually and non-trivial emotionally.

I recently visited a job counsellor who told me that getting yet another degree at my point in life was a bad idea, and pushed me in the direction of getting some kind of quant job in finance, insurance etc, the normal thing that people with my background do. He also strongly advised me to get a Linkedin profile, which I really didn’t want to do because the entire social media crap makes me very tired and annoyed and Facebook is already annoying enough.

Yet of course after a few days of internally debating with him I decided it could not really hurt to try, made a Linkedin profile and started to find out where all my colleagues that were part of the mass exodus that my field recently experienced have ended up.

Yep, practically all of my former colleagues have some kind of quant job now: Most work in data science, data analytics, some in technical consulting. Many of them have profile pictures where they suddenly look very business-like and wear suits, and blab about the usual things one blabs about on Linkedin profiles, and they look like they have become different people and claim to be excited about adding value to their companies while a short while ago they claimed to be terminally excited about the exotic subfield they worked in.

While this irritated me, I still felt a sudden and strong pull to follow in their footsteps. I couldn’t fight it and started to frantically search for job ads in big data. I noticed that the prospect made me  unhappy, but I was unable to weigh my unhappiness higher than the fact that everyone else with my background is seemingly doing the same thing, and it is not what I do. I also felt I really had to hurry up and get a job like this now, possibly before I could think about it too much. I found lots of reasons why this was a good idea. I like data and statistics, really, I miss analyzing data.

Yet looking at the typical, incredibly fake and cheesy ads of the kind of company my colleagues now work at makes me want to curl up and forget that the world exists. God, how I hate this kind of consulting/management/huge company which changes the world for the better bullshit. I get so tired thinking about it. I have always been this way; as a teenager, when I looked at typical job ads in the news paper “sales regulation software management technician for a consulting company specialized on textiles” I decided I did not want to grow up and instead hide in a hut in the wilderness somewhere.

And probably this extreme nausea about typical job ads made me want to do something radically impractical, which I did; for me having a job in a relatively esoteric field has always partially been a protest and escape from the kind of jobs that most people seem to do, although of course I intellectually know that this is the way the world works and that if everyone thought like me blabla etc.

The more I look into jobs in the quant field the more depressed and tired I feel, and yet I am still not sure if maybe I am deluded in my wish of not wanting to be a data analyst or technical consultant.

I am not trying to claim that I had a big insight along the lines of “It does not matter what others do”. I didn’t have this insight on an emotional level. I understand intellectually that I need to find out what is right for me, and that what others do should not matter, but still I suspect that they might know something that I don’t and are ahead of me.

My conclusion for now is that other people’s actions seem as foreign to me as the migration of salmon and yet I want to be like them and really migrate with them wherever they go.

Posted in Anxiety, Leaving Academia, Psychology | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Depression and meaning

I have been taking a low dose of an SSRI for a while against a minor depression, and it has helped, but only recently I really feel like I am fully getting out of the depressed mindset and my head is clearing.

Comparing how I feel now and how I felt a few months ago made me realize like never before how much depression and a feeling of meaningfulness are connected for me.

My feeling of meaningfulness has always been varying widely. If I am on a low, I am deeply fed up with everything. It is like being nauseated with life itself. Then I say that I am “tired”, but I am not really tired, I just notice that everything seems like an effort, and interpret this as tiredness. But what I really mean is my actions or inactions seem meaningless to me, even cooking dinner, and consequently everything seems like a chore. For me, that is the summary of how depression feels like: like pervasive meaninglessness. I usually still function, but it is against a tide of nothingness.

When I am on a high, I get very active without effort. My work seems highly meaningful to me and stopping is like being on withdrawal. Working out also seems meaningful, and cleaning, and cooking, and meeting people, and writing, and I often get overwhelmed because there are too many things I want to do and although things are getting done extremely easily in this mode, at some point I start to be tired and overstimulated, but have the tendency to push on, because I just really do not want to stop doing whatever seems so meaningful.

In both cases, this impression of meaning has no rational thought process behind it. It is just a feeling that my actions have meaning or a feeling that they don’t. I know that my actions are always meaningless in the grand scheme of things and always meaningful for myself and the people around me. I suspect a lot of things that have always puzzled me about other people, and how stable they seem, is that they have a less varying sense of meaningfulness.

Since meaning is so central to my experience of depression, I suspect that one way to help oneself to get out of depressive episodes is to try to increase the feeling of meaningfulness in life. This seems so obvious, but I am not sure I fully understood this until now. The hard part about it is that we really have to ask what feels meaningful to us. And this can be a very threatening and upsetting question, so it can seem more safe to stay depressed.

For me, if I am honest, my current main source of meaningfulness is psychology. Thanks to psychology I can see my life, and that of others, as a journey towards “become who one truly is”, a journey with setbacks and pains and failures, but a journey that is, in a way, heroic and meaningful. When I read how others overcome bad parents, horrible partners, bad life choices and so on, and become more whole and healthier and happier, and wiser about who they are and what they want, I see them as protagnoists in stories that matter in a deep way. And then I feel like I am one of all those people struggling to become themselves too. I am on my way too, and it is always meaningful to work towards this goal, and always meaningful to help others along on this way, no matter by how little. And I start to want to help others on their paths, and learn about how to help them, and that is scary, because it is so far away from what I have done in my life until now.

I start to realize that the depression I felt  during my final years in science was a normal reaction to the fact I had grown out of a line of work that did not feel meaningful to me anymore, but since it had felt so meaningful once, it was very hard to admit this. So the depression was a crisis of meaning. And to really overcome it I have to go in the direction where I perceive a sense of meaning for myself, and where this is is something that I have to figure out completely on my own.

Posted in Depression, Leaving Academia, Psychology | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Freedom and burn-out

It is barely one year since I left my science career, very tired and burnt out. Very strange that it is only about 1.5 years ago that it would have been normal for me to spend all day thinking about a sub-sub-field of physics, normal since 10 years, or if I count my undergrads, normal to think about maths and physics all day for 14 years. Two times seven years.

All the more it amazes me that I am now officially enrolled in two University seminars about burn-out! Taught by two real psychologists who are experts in the area. Tonight I was reading fascinating literature by Aaron Antonovsky about the topic for the next class and feeling very happy. Reading psychological self-help literature is one of my obsessions, and it is great to finally read something deeper about psychology and being allowed to discuss it with others. Ha! I get credit points for doing things that I would do voluntarily.

I feel like I was in the middle of doing a average-interesting scientific project with doing a Master for high school teachers and suddenly hit something truly fascinating. Maybe, maybe, maybe this is the first sign that I am taking a slight detour from becoming a high school teacher, and going to get another degree in psychology, or something like this, although I know that is a truly crazy idea. The first social psychology lecture that I sat in for fun this week fascinated me so much that I am waiting for the next one impatiently. I have never before felt this way about a lecture.

How amazing it is that my (maybe unfortunate) decision to do two postdocs in physics does not stop me from now being at Uni learning about psychology! In fact, I am allowed to do that, I am allowed to get a second degree and allowed to change directions of my life completely, if I want that. I guess the realization of how free I truly am is only slowly sinking in. I apparently did not mess up my life as badly as I once thought.

Posted in Leaving Academia, Psychology | Tagged , , | 1 Comment