Education and Pre-Understanding

To embark on an education in any field, physics, say, is enervating because the student (in high school) say, enters a strange ocean with “zillions” of names and laws, units of measurement (amps, ohms, coulombs, faradays, etc.) which are very intricate and confusing.

A student does start swimming in this ocean via school “coercion” (i.e., how one will be punished for “failing.”)

There’s a much deeper and useful and practical way to create a pathway into fields: looking for a pre-understanding of what the field is like by taking one particular question or “head-scratcher” and start to delve into it, welcoming any initial sense of not-being-sure, as part of the fun of it, the enchantment.

Consider this article from 2001 in Scientific American:

“Can somebody finally settle this question: Does water flowing down a drain spin in different directions depending on which hemisphere you’re in? And if so, why?” [Archived PDF]

If you start to worry about the water swirling down your kitchen sink or bathtub, you are inevitably faced with the puzzling discussions of something called Coriolis forces, named after the French scientist of this name:

“In physics, the Coriolis force is an inertial or fictitious force that acts on objects that are in motion within a frame of reference that rotates with respect to an inertial frame. In a reference frame with clockwise rotation, the force acts to the left of the motion of the object. In one with anticlockwise (or counterclockwise) rotation, the force acts to the right. Deflection of an object due to the Coriolis force is called the Coriolis effect. Though recognized previously by others, the mathematical expression for the Coriolis force appeared in an 1835 paper by French scientist Gaspard-Gustave de Coriolis, in connection with the theory of water wheels. Early in the 20th century, the term Coriolis force began to be used in connection with meteorology.”

The Coriolis force is called a pseudo-force or fictitious force which is already quite puzzling. It seems to push an ant walking across a 78 RPM record in motion on the turntable in unexpected ways and affects the swirling motions of storm phenomena (hurricanes, cyclones, etc.).

The student would immediately sense that at the heart of physics—using this Coriolis force as an indicator—there’s an unbelievable intricacy—but also the sense that these explanations (i.e., forces versus pseudo-forces) that are not entirely convincing and might well be overturned or re-done by someone with a deeper grasp of the problem, in the future. There’s an “ad hoc-ness” (i.e., the explanations and units and theories and proofs seem somehow “circular” or “tautological” in a way that eludes us, as we wait for a clearer theory).

A person walking across a moving merry-go-round or carousel and the complexity of the pushes and pulls experiences “shoves” that are unfamiliar and the water going down the drain in the bathtub awaits a better theory. There is a subfield called “turbulent flow” and that would need to be brought into it. Weather phenomena like tsunamis, cyclones, etc. are turbulences that are complex and our theories are both unbelievably intricate but perhaps subject to revision.

All of this might be an enchanting “gateway” into physics and would give the student a pre-understanding of physics’s “style of thinking and explaining.” In other words, to “parachute” into a field you need the parachute of some particular puzzling example which you use as a “private gateway” into the way people in that field think and act.

Just to go through the years of high school and college in an endless and mindless “slog” with the “failure gun” of coercion pointed at you, is a tremendously soul-destroying way to educate oneself. You have to “go underground” and find your own pre-understanding and its twin brother or clone, enchantment.