APS News | Letters to the editor

Battling Freshman Physics at Caltech

A reader recounts his battle with freshman physics at Caltech.

Published Nov 08, 2022

I applaud Donnell Walton and Carl Wieman [who authored the July/August Back Page article “What We Miss When We Focus on Physics ‘Talent’”] for stressing how important teaching and preparation are for aspiring physics students. I had no idea how bad my preparation in math was until I arrived at Caltech as a freshman in 1965. The highest math course offered by the suburban New Jersey high school I graduated from was pre-calculus. Caltech offered three levels of first-year calculus, and I was put in the lowest, along with about two-thirds of my class. A couple of weeks into the term, the professor asked "How many of you have had the rudiments of integration and differentiation?" Maybe two-thirds of the class raised their hands. The professor seemed satisfied and said, "The rest of you can get it from the textbook" (by Tom Apostol). I knew immediately I was in trouble.

Freshman physics didn't help. The Feynman Lectures were the textbook, and neither it nor the problem sets—which had been adopted from an earlier physics course—made much effort to help us along in math. When I saw three integral signs in a row in one problem, I turned to my roommate and asked, "What the hell is this?" I was struggling with the idea of integration and had no idea what a triple integral meant. I kept struggling with higher math all my years at Caltech, never managing to assimilate enough to feel I had mastered it.

Only two-thirds of my entering class graduated in four years; I managed to be among them, graduating in engineering, but by then I was burnt out. After I finally settled down, I spent my career writing about science and technology, but even in my tutorials, I avoid higher math because I never mastered it.

I agree with Walton and Wieman. University physics programs need to concentrate on teaching to help equalize the inevitably unequal preparation of incoming students. Don't just drop everyone into Physics 1 without preparing them with the mathematical tools they need to understand physics. Think about incoming students as individuals with different backgrounds, and set aside time and energy to give them equal opportunity to succeed.

Jeff Hecht (Massachusetts)

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