home : writeups : Neal Stephenson's Commentary on the Sorry State of Physics Education
I discovered this scathing commentary by Neal Stephenson on the current state of physics education, hidden within in his book Cryptonomicon (1999). He essentially agrees with the viewpoint I take, and as it does not spoil the story in any way I hope that he does not object to my posting the full commentary here. It begins after a pithy description of dust devils.
There was no room for dust devils in the laws of physics, as least in the rigid form in which they were usually taught. There is a kind of unspoken collusion going on in mainstream science education: you get your competent but bored, insecure and hence stodgy teacher talking to an audience divided between engineering students, who are going to be responsible for making bridges that won't fall down or airplanes that won't suddenly plunge vertically into the ground at six hundred miles an hour, and who by definition get sweaty palms and vindictive attitudes when their teacher suddenly veers off track and begins raving about wild and completely nonintuitive phenomena; and physics students, who derive much of their self-esteem from knowing that they are smarter and morally purer than the engineering students, and who by definition don't want to hear about anything that makes no fucking sense. This collusion results in the professor saying: (something along the lines of) dust is heavier than air, therefore it falls until it hits the ground. That's all there is to know about dust. The engineers love it because they like their issues dead and crucified like butterflies under glass. The physicists love it because they want to think they understand everything. No one asks difficult questions. And outside the windows, the dust devils continue to gambol across the campus. (Copyright 1999 Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon)