Posted by: Alexandre Borovik | December 6, 2008

The Downward Spiral of Physics

I republish my old post of Saturday, August 19, 2006, from my defunct blog:

Recent reports about of a “downward spiral” of physics education in Britain are strikingly similar to the last year’s discussion of a downward spiral in mathematics education.

See, for example, an article in The Guardian titled Physics in downward spiral as pupils think it is too difficult and the original report on the state of physics by Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson (text of the report) which started the ball rolling.

I quote The Guardian article:

The authors [of the report], Alan Smithers and Pamela Robinson […], warned the situation could get worse as fewer physics graduates were training to teach the subject in schools. Professor Smithers said: “Physics is in the grip of a long-term downward spiral. Not enough young people … take physics degrees, which means the pool from which to recruit teachers is not large enough. Many young people do not get sufficient opportunity to discover if they are good at physics and they are naturally disinclined to take what they believe is a difficult subject at A-level.

As in the case of mathematics, one should not underestimate the role of wider cultural changes in the decline of physics education. Physicists of my generation frequently got their first exposure to real-life physics (and discovered that they are “good at physics”) by mending, fixing and repairing radios and various electrical appliances at their homes. Nowadays electrical goods are, as a rule, unreparable – they either work, or otherwise you have to through them away. Computers are the only noticeable exception from this rule – but not computer monitors! Also, the modular structure of computers turns their repair into a task of information technology, not physics.

At my time, things were very different. One of my classmates at the boarding school (in 1971-73), for example, at age of 14 was repairing TV sets for all his family friends and neighbours. For that purpose, he converted his family’s TV set into an oscilloscope. It is important to clarify that the TV set did not lose its functionality, it still showed TV programmes – but when needed, it could be switched into the oscilloscope mode. I doubt that the same can be done with a modern plasma screen TV. I also have to add that I myself was hopeless in electronics – this is why I am a mathematician. And, of course, my classmate now is a professional research physicists, he is doing accelerators and elementary particles.

Richard Feynman explained in his autobiographical essay He Fixes Radios by Thinking! that he started his glorious career in physics by fixing his neighbours’ radios. I apologise for a long quote from Feynman, it is really instructive:

One job was really sensational. I was working at the time for a printer, and a man who knew that printer knew I was trying to I get jobs fixing radios, so he sent a fellow around to the print shop to pick me up. The guy is obviously poor – his car is a complete wreck – and we go to his house which is in a cheap part of town. On the way, I say, “What’s the trouble with the radio?”

He says, “When I turn it on it makes a noise, and after a while the noise stops and everything’s all right, but I don’t like the noise at the beginning”.

I think to myself: “What the hell! If he hasn’t got any money, you’d think he could stand a little noise for a while.” And all the time, on the way to his house, he’s saying things like, “Do you know anything about radios? How do you know about radios-you’re just a little boy!”

He’s putting me down the whole way, and I’m thinking, “So what’s the matter with him? So it makes a little noise.”

But when we got there I went over to the radio and turned it on. Little noise? My God! No wonder the poor guy couldn’t stand it. The thing began to roar and wobble – WUH BUH BUH BUH BUH – A tremendous amount of noise. Then it quieted down and played correctly. So I started to think: “How can that happen?”

I start walking back and forth, thinking, and I realize that one way it can happen is that the tubes are heating up in the wrong order – that is, the amplifier’s all hot, the tubes are ready to go, and there’s nothing feeding in, or there’s some back circuit feeding in, or something wrong in the beginning part the RF part – and therefore it’s making a lot of noise, picking up something. And when the RF circuit’s finally going, and the grid voltages are adjusted, everything’s all right.

So the guy says, “What are you doing? You come to fix the radio, but you’re only walking back and forth!”

I say, “I’m thinking!” Then I said to myself, “All right, take the tubes out, and reverse the order completely in the set.” (Many radio sets in those days used the same tubes in different places – 212’s, I think they were, or 212A’s). So I changed the tubes around, stepped to the front of the radio, turned the thing on, and it’s as quiet as a lamb: it waits until it heats up, and then plays perfectly-no noise.

When a person has been negative to you, and then you do something like that, they’re usually a hundred percent the other way, kind of to compensate. He got me other jobs, and kept telling everybody what a tremendous genius I was, saying, “He fixes radios by thinking!” The whole idea of thinking, to fix a radio – a little boy stops and thinks, and figures out how to do it – he never thought that was possible.

Feynman further explains the miracle:

Radio circuits were much easier to understand in those days because everything was out in the open. After you took the set apart (it was a big problem to find the right screws), you could see this was a resistor, that’s a condenser, here’s a this, there’s a that; they were all labeled. And if wax had been dripping from the condenser, it was too hot and you could tell that the condenser was burned out. If there was charcoal on one of the resistors you knew where the trouble was. Or, if you couldn’t tell what was the matter by looking at it, you’d test it with your voltmeter and see whether voltage was coming through. The sets were simple, the circuits were not complicated. The voltage on the grids was always about one and a half or two volts and the voltages on the plates were one hundred or two hundred, DC. So it wasn’t hard for me to fix a radio by understanding what was going on inside, noticing that something wasn’t working right, and fixing it.

Alas, similar cultural changes affect (and mostly negatively) the position of mathematics in modern culture. I leave it to the reader to come up with examples – they are abundant.


An anonymous comment to this my post  was priceless:

Anonymous said…

The problem, I think, is much wider and deeper than just for physics. Philosopher Stephen Clarke has argued that we are currently in a unique transition point in the history of technology: From a time when most people could understand (or could quickly learn) how most technologies they encountered in their everday life worked, to a time when almost no ordinary person can understand how any everday technology works.

21/8/06 12:50 PM  




  1. One reason why it is difficult to learn by reverse-engineering is the way software operates.

    First only open-source software lend themselves to be legally reverse-engineered.
    Secondly software is a manifestation of human(programmers) brain thought. It is difficult to understand other peoples thought process 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: