Unpopular Opinions

Physics courses are actually beneficial for students

Many students have had their dreams dashed on the high cliffs of calculus and physics prerequisite courses.  These classes are hard and largely have little to do with an aspiring student’s field of study.  I have always been a fervent advocate of admonishing the usefulness of taking these courses, until I actually took them.

Is it useful?

As a student in the McGill school of environment, I had little exposure to hard science in my science degree and the calculus and physics prerequisites I needed were left until I basically finished my bachelor of science.  I was even more of a math and physics basher, because why should I have to take these pre-requisites when I had basically finished my entire degree without needing these classes at all?  Bad news for me; if I wanted to get that piece of paper and wear a funny hat, I needed to do these prerequisites, so off I went.

After having done well, much to my surprise, in calculus, I still had the arduous task of taking three pre-university physics courses.  I whizzed through the first course (mechanics) by the skin of my teeth during a speedy summer course without actually knowing what I was studying and am currently procrastinating for my midterm exams in the last two physics classes (electricity & magnetism and waves & modern physics).  I have been absolutely shocked, flabbergasted and dumbfounded to find that these classes are actually important and dare I say interesting and useful for my field of study.

My area of focus for the last few years at McGill has been the study of biodiversity and conservation.  I have been heading in the direction of Indigenous solidarity and journalism and hence wandering even farther away from the field of hard science. This has made it even more difficult to stay motivated in my physics classes, however, it’s like having one last dance with science before I move on to other pastures.

Having been a student of the environment, I have been looking at a largely macroscopic scale.   I like looking at patterns and ecological systems, seeing how everything works together.  Physics is like the glue that holds all of this succinctly.  It is the ant of the science world, explaining the physical phenomenon behind everything.

I now ask myself how I could have considered my environmental education complete without knowing how colors are formed and how could I understand the basics of climate change without understanding how heat is created and lost.

I have had my scientific wonder rekindled in these courses.  Maybe because it’s my last semester as an undergrad and I have chosen to not lose energy through complaining, or maybe it’s simply because this material is really, really cool and important to learn for anyone who wants to understand how the earth works.

It isn’t all good, though.  The math is still very challenging and first-year classes such as these two don’t tend to be taught by the best professors.  Physics also has a classical view that nature is something to be understood in tiny pieces, thereby dominating the planet through science.

The repetitive nature of science doesn’t always have long-term visioning for the well-being of the environment due to the fact that it just wants to prove a specific finding in the then and now, which can be very wasteful and harmful for the earth.  The small-scale that physics views the world through can also cause a loss of view of the big-picture.

Not seeing the whole picture

This goes along with a popular scientific analogy that dares to use comedy and paints a very definitive picture of the problem I am describing: There is an elephant in the room.  One scientist is examining the tail, another the trunk, one the hide and the last a leg.  Each scientist will have a dramatically different description of the elephant and will work tooth and bone in proving that their findings of the elephant are what elephants are.

An ecological approach will look at the elephant as a whole system that needs each part to be an elephant.  Just as long as this perspective isn’t lost, I find physics a fascinating field and I am actually glad to have to take it, math and crappy teachers aside.  That’s a pretty unpopular opinion, but it has taught me, once again, not to knock something until you try it.

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