Letter to the Editor
Regarding the request on today’s APS Forum On Education for articles on thermodynamics, I don’t have an article but instead have a suggestion. When you write up something on this subject and get to the topic of “entropy” I suggest that after the theoretical treatment you provide some concrete examples of this very “non-intuitive” topic. The one which comes to my mind most readily is one from cosmology which I’ve thought a lot about as a result of recently reading “The Fabric of the Cosmos” by Brian Greene.
I think wrestling with the concept of entropy in this application will imprint it forever on a student’s tender mind. In fact I think something like this discussion might be used as a possible argument against a perpetually oscillating universe --- an interesting use of a rather abstract [to some] concept.
Letter to the Editor
Jim Nelson's fine article "Where are the Science Candidates" (Fall 2004) appeals to physicists to produce a more physics-literate public, to make physics education more relevant to students' needs and interests, and to educate the policy-makers who can provide support to the physics enterprise.
Physics educators cannot accomplish these goals by continuing to focus overwhelmingly on traditional math-based high school and college introductory courses for the small fraction of our students who might someday be like us, namely professional physicists. What about the other 99 percent?
Every high school and college needs to teach physics courses geared to the needs and interests of non-scientists. It's fairly obvious, I think, that such courses should be conceptual (little or no algebra), interactive (use inquiry techniques), and include societal topics (global warming, the process of science, pseudoscience, etc.) and modern topics (quantum entanglement, general relativity, strings, the big bang, etc.) that are relevant and exciting to students. I have tried to follow these principles in my conceptual introductory textbook "Physics: Concepts and Connections" (http://physics.uark.edu/hobson/).
Most important, essentially all non-science students, rather than the small fraction that currently enroll, should take a conceptual physics course. Such courses should be far larger than the math-based courses! If our nation is ever to become scientifically literate, "physics for the few" needs to become "physics for all."
Furthermore, all science students, and especially the future physicists, should take such a physics literacy course before enrolling in their first math-based course. A big part of the problem described by Nelson arises because of the narrow technical orientation of most physicists. A first course in physics that is interactively taught and that emphasizes the concepts of physics, the connections of physics to society, and the mind-blowing scope of contemporary physics, should go a long way toward making future physicists more effective in pursuing Nelson's goals.