Popular Science

Everybody’s favorite physicist-raconteur, Richard Feynman was very wary of the way science was taught in school. He once had the misfortune of sitting on a committee trying to choose the next science textbook for schools. Feynman remembers this as an emotionally trying time for both him and his wife.

There is one memorable instance where he was looking at one book. It started with some pictures, a windup toy, an automobile, a boy on a bicycle and so on. Underneath each picture was the caption “what makes it go?”

Feynman was intrigued. This looked promising. The book would talk about springs and mechanics for the toy, combustion and chemistry for the car and muscles and biology for the riding boy. It looked like the method of question and answers his own father had used to rouse his curiosity and teach him.

He turned the page. For each picture, the answer was the same “Energy makes it go.” Feynman exploded. “Energy makes it go” means nothing. You could call it Wakalixes, “Wakalixes makes it go”. The only thing the student learns is a new word with no insight about how things actually work.

Despite Feynman’s protests, this book was approved by the board.

There is a sort of popular science that seeks to impress rather than explain. No part of science has been more abused by this than quantum mechanics. Take one example, how many times have you heard the phrase that a quantum bit can be both 0 and 1 at the same time (it can’t) or that a quantum bit exists in a superposition of the states of 1 and 0.

Again these statements mean nothing. To say it is both 0 and 1 seems to be outright wrong. To say it is in a superposition of states is meaningless unless the reader already has a clear grasp of quantum superposition (in which case, he would probably not be relying on a general science book to begin with).






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