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The case for Physics
December 7, 2014, 2:22 pm

For those aspiring to a career as a scientist, the question of why to study science does not need to be answered. However, for those not pursuing sciences or technology careers, science courses of any stripe are often thought to be a waste of time. Nevertheless, for those considering a well-rounded education there is a case to be made for studying science, especially physics.

Famed quantum physicist Richard Feynman made a great pitch for scientific education when he described Science, “as a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.”

James Trefil in his 2007 book, Why Science?, takes another angle, and focuses on arguments from civics, aesthetics, and culture, to explain why a very basic understanding of scientific concepts is necessary for non-scientists.

Trefil presents a set of grand ideas to form the basis of this scientific literacy ... many of which are firmly rooted in concepts of physics.
Trefil refers to the 'physics first' approach presented first by 1988 Nobel Laureate Leon Lederman in his Chicago-based educational reforms. Trefil's analysis is that his method of 'physics first' is especially useful for older, high school age students, while the more traditional 'biology first' curriculum is appropriate for younger elementary and middle school students.

The approach emphasizes physics as the most fundamental of sciences. Chemistry is applied physics, after all, and biology, in its modern form, at least and in its extended fields – zoology, ecology, and genetics, is basically applied chemistry.

All of science can, in principle, be reduced down to fundamental physics concepts such as thermodynamics and nuclear physics. In fact, this is how physics developed historically: basic principles of physics were determined by Galileo while biology still consisted of various theories of spontaneous generation, after all.

Therefore, grounding a scientific education in physics makes perfect sense, because it is the foundation of science. From physics, you can expand naturally into the more specialized applications – thermodynamics and nuclear physics into chemistry, or mechanics and material physics principles into engineering.

The path is rough in reverse, going from knowledge of ecology into knowledge of biology into knowledge of chemistry and so on. The smaller the sub-category of knowledge you have, the less it can be generalized; the more general the knowledge, the more it can be applied to specific situations. As such, the fundamental knowledge of physics would be the most useful scientific knowledge, if someone had to pick which areas to study.

Since physics is the study of matter, energy, space and time, without it there would be nothing in existence to react or thrive or live or die. The entire universe is built upon the principles revealed by a study of physics.

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