Two months ago, my boyfriend picked up a physics minor, and our conversations gradually began to veer off into the realm of Newton’s laws and black holes. I, far from a physics lover, expressed my frustration that our discussions were going way over my head. Soon after, he bought me Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, a popular science book by Neil deGrasse Tyson, that focuses on common questions about the universe.
With that, I dove into my boyfriend’s newfound passion. The book offered an interesting perspective on how humans fit into the universe. For me, learning about the cosmos was a reminder that the world doesn’t revolve around humans. That being said, physics itself still intimidates me: The prospect of learning the laws that govern the entire universe seems too immense of a task.
Ken Ragan, a professor in the Department of Physics at McGill who teaches PHYS 101: An Introduction to Mechanics for the Life Sciences and PHYS 131: Mechanics and Waves, defines this fear as being ‘physics shy.’
“People underestimate the extent [to] which they can understand physics,” Ragan said in an interview with The McGill Tribune. “The idea that ‘It’s so complicated that I [could] never understand it,’ […] that’s the part that is holding people back.”
According to Ragan, students do not need to have a background in physics to take his PHYS 101 course: In the class, students learn basic governing principles that allow them to understand more applied concepts.
“The scary things are the complicated things,” Ragan said. “But you don’t give an eight-year-old a 400-page book [to teach them how to read] [….] You have to start small.”
Science communication has a large role to play in making daunting scientific concepts digestible for non-scientists, a goal that Astrophysics for People in a Hurry hopes to achieve. The book explains the universe in its entirety, from the Big Bang 14 billion years ago to today, detailing phenomena such as the formation of the Milky Way and the naming of planets and asteroids. Instead of feeling inspired by the book, however, some can feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of large-scale science and the lack of basic explanations of universe-level happenings.
Unlike the big picture approach that Tyson’s book takes, Ragan believes that the key to loving physics lies in starting small.
“Physics, [at least at] the level that I teach in U0 introductory courses, is primarily mechanics of how things move, how forces work, […] how we describe […] rotating systems in which collisions are happening, and how we think about energy,” Ragan said. “The nice thing about physics is [that] there are all sorts of examples around you for how these concepts work. Bicycles have rolling wheels, kids’ toys have springs, balls or hockey pucks slide on frictionless surfaces. There are lots of real-world examples for how you can understand systems in quantitative ways.”
Yet, when most people hear the word ‘physics,’ they think of massive black holes and the theory of general relativity.
“All of the cool physics [in] best-selling books and popular documentaries is not the kind of physics [that] we teach at the basic level,” Ragan said. “Astrophysics, gravitational waves, or quantum mechanics are all based on introductory concepts. That’s the striking feature of physics: You build up this toolkit.”
People often doubt their ability to understand physics because they have trouble wrapping their mind around things that they cannot see.
“I find this response funny because people have no problem getting their mind around CRISPR or trying to understand advanced technology in other areas of science they can’t see,” Ragan said. “No one has ever seen a hydrogen atom, but they believe it can exist.”
While many might continue to be ‘physics shy,’ starting with small steps can help to overcome fear of the subject. Astrophysics and blackholes may be daunting, but as Ragan points out, learning about the laws of the universe can be as simple as learning a few real-world physics concepts. For me, this mindset has allowed me to genuinely partake in physics conversations with my boyfriend.