I think the process of learning about science can create unique experiences which students studying physics can relate to. The actual process of comprehending new mathematical concepts understanding old information in new frameworks, the process of continuously leaving behind past beliefs about the world and updating them until you don’t describe your knowledge of the world as a belief anymore. The inherent surety and yet also doubt in the scientific worldview. These experiences are so relatable to scientists yet so distant from peoples who haven’t travelled down those paths. The purpose of this piece that a reader may relate to one of these experiences without ever having to learn physics. I started thinking on this topic today while listening to a public lecture given by Feynman (who is arguable one of the best educators to have ever existed). I thought he was able to explain what the process of learning these facts and theories about the world feel like. The video was in some ways cathartic and comforting. I thought that if I could get my parents or grandparents to listen to this maybe they could to a better degree relate to some of the emotions that are brought on by studying physics.
To this end I want to talk about the framework in which you understand a concept. I want to talk about what it’s like to constantly relearn something using a different framework. Firstly, to understand anything you need to be existing in a space where somethings are taken as a given. If you asked why did the chicken cross the road? A satisfactory answer could be because there was chicken feed on the other side. Here we accept this as a reasonable answer because the concept of being motivated by food is taken as given. However, a sentient plant would be confused by this explanation and would need to be told of mammalian life requires consumption of food. The process of physics often requires you to list what you take about the world as a given and then to show what this would mean for phenomena. Similarly, you spend time relearning things you thought you knew but in a different framework of assumption. For example, in Newtonian Mechanics we take time as an absolute entity that exist separate to the particles and location of any events. This proved to be wrong but it is approximately true at small enough speeds which allows Newtonian mechanics to be useful still. In modern day we have brought the basic axioms of this world back further and further. One assumption made today that is that the laws of physics is the same now as they were yesterday or a hundred years ago. Another would be that the speed of light is the same in every reference frame. Yet at no stage do we have any idea as to why these givens are the case. Just that the implications of these assumption match up with nature as we have observed her.
To illustrate this process, I will describe my understanding of the concept of energy. Firstly, I thought energy was to do with motion and light and explosions and food. It was something objects could have or something that could be passed between forms but never destroyed or created. Further study had me thinking of energy as just a quantity that could be calculated in any scenario. That what made it special was that after some time the same calculations would give you the same result. As such it was useful to physics because the calculation involved the speed and so on of objects so that one term in the sum had a smaller value then another would have to have a larger value. I took the existence of such a constant quantity as a given. I had no idea why that would be the case. Now I understand energy as a quantity that must be the same if the laws of physics are to be the same today as they were yesterday. If the value of the energy was different the motion of the particles would be different for different values of time. As such energy is now a consequence of the assumptions that the laws of nature are unchanged in time. This assumption is now the new given and I understand energy in this framework. I hope this illustrates that learning physics can sometimes feel like this constant relearning of old ideas in a new framework with new givens.