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Re: [Phys-L] thoughts on how science is done

On 07/08/2014 06:05 AM, Anthony Lapinski wrote:

Here's an article, What Is Science?, I found online two years ago:

Yes, that's a classic.

I like the general drift of the article, but I disagree with
Feynman on a couple of points.

1a) His point about names is overstated.
++ We agree that knowing the name of a thing is not a substitute
for understanding the thing.
-- However, if you know the name it helps you /look up/ information
about the thing.
-- Knowing the names speeds up conversation between people who
know the names. Think about the word "mouse". It would be
very unpleasant if I had to explain what a mouse is, every
time I wanted to use the term.

Terminology exists for a reason.

1b) Speaking of names: I'm pretty sure that the reference to
the "Fitz-Cronin" was meant to refer to /Fitch/ and Cronin.
This proves Feynman's point that he paid no attention to names,
but it also illustrates my point that he went too far in this
direction. Cronin and Fitch are real persons, and they probably
don't appreciate having their connection to the work trivialized
in this way. Ten years after the NSTA address, the consensus was
that the work (and their connection to it) was highly nontrivial:

2) Physics teachers tend to get dogmatic about the assertion that
"the ball does not run to the back of the wagon". That's true
in an unaccelerated reference frame, but in the frame comoving
with the wagon, the ball most certainly does run to the back.
In the introductory course, there are good pedagogical reasons
for focusing on unaccelerated reference frames ... but that
does not mean that accelerated frames do not exist. People
very commonly use frames comoving with their vehicle, and
rightly so. Even physicists do this, and have done since Day
One of modern science (1632). Everybody knows that accelerated
frames exist, and if we pretend they do not, people will think
we are insane. Indeed, according to the modern (post-1915)
understanding of physics, the ordinary lab frame is an accelerated
frame, accelerating skyward at 9.8 m/s/s.

I have no objection to using the usual Newtonian approach in
the introductory course; I just think people should be more
explicit about their assumptions:
/If you analyze it in the lab frame/ the ball does not
roll towards the back of the wagon....

3) There are two different definitions of energy. Both are
in common use. Both are super-important. If we pretend that
one is right and the other is wrong, people will think we are
selfish and narrow-minded, if not completely insane.

Also this seriously interferes with learning: Students are
taught one definition of energy for years and years, starting
in third grade ... and then suddenly in high-school physics
we foist on them a new and different definition. Actually
it's worse than that, because even as we require them to use
one definition in class, they are seeing and using the other
definition outside of class. No wonder they are confused.

Sometimes it can be even worse than that, if the /teacher/
does not clearly appreciate the distinction between the
physics energy and the Department-of-Energy energy, and
expects students to learn definitions that are self-
contradictory and inconsistent with experiment.

Constructive suggestion: Rather than pretending conflicting
terms and concepts do not exist, we should acknowledge them
and then explain how to /distinguish/ them: "This is the
physics energy, this is the DoE energy, and here is how you
tell them apart."

The DoE energy corresponds to some notion of "available"
energy. Feynman ridicules this, but I say it is important.
People start wars over it. People like it so much that
they are on course to make the planet uninhabitable on
account of it. If you choose to say this is outside the
scope of the introductory physics class, that's OK ...
but you can't pretend it doesn't exist.