The Make-Believe World of Real-World Physics (Eric Mazur)

by Stephanie Chasteen on July 26, 2008

[[AAPT Millikan Lecture: Eric Mazur]]

Eric Mazur (Harvard) was awarded the Millikan prize this year, and this blog post is a detailed account of the marvelous keynote lecture he gave for the occasion. You can download the entire presentation on his website, and I recommend that you do so, because, well, it was marvelous!

The AAPT Press release on the award has this to say:

“Professor Eric Mazur’s Peer Instruction technique has altered the landscape of physics teaching. Numerous teachers have adopted Peer Instruction, enlivening their classes by turning passive students into active learners. AAPT’s Robert A. Millikan Medal recognizes Eric Mazur’s outstanding scholarly contributions to physics education,” says Harvey S. Leff, Chair, AAPT Awards Chair, as well as the 2008 AAPT Past President, and Professor Emeritus of Physics, California State Polytechnic University.

Here’s the content of the lecture.

He opened up with this poem from the “Dear Professor” collection of poems based on emails sent to a real live physics professor and compiled by his wife.

Dear Professor,
I still don’t believe heavy
and light things fall at the same speed.
A feather and a stone, for example.
You kept saying I’d get it
if I lived in a vacuum.
Do you live in a vacuum?

One stark moment in Mazur’s career came when one of his students, taking a concept quiz about force and motion, asked him,

“How should I answer these questions? According to what you taught me? Or according to the way I usually think about these things?”

Why is there this difference, asks Mazur, between the world of physics and the real world? He wanted to know, so he went to Harvard square and undertook to find out. He asked people there who hadn’t taken a physics course whether physics had anything to do with the regular world. Their response?


“Sort of”

“I’m sure in some way it does”

“Yes, definitely. I’m just not sure it applies to what I do everyday.”

So, while there was some hesitation, generally people were pretty positive about the connection between physics and real life. But studies have shown that generally after taking introductory physics, students believe physics is less relevant to the real world than they did when they entered the class! There is something about the way we’re teaching physics that is divorcing it, in students’ minds, from the stuff of everyday experience.


Mazur’s answer is that “spherical cows endanger physics.”

(Don’t know what a spherical cow is? From Wikipedia:

Spherical cow is a metaphor for highly simplified scientific models of reality. The phrase comes from a joke about theoretical physicists:

Milk production at a dairy farm was low so the farmer wrote to the local university, asking help from academia. A multidisciplinary team of professors was assembled, headed by a theoretical physicist, and two weeks of intensive on-site investigation took place. The scholars then returned to the university, notebooks crammed with data, where the task of writing the report was left to the team leader. Shortly thereafter the farmer received the write-up, and opened it to read on the first line: “Consider a spherical cow. . .

Mazur argues that — mostly through our textbooks — we paint a picture of physics that is

  • Really weird
  • Different from the real world
  • Truly confusing

Physics is Weird

You’re an introductory physics student. You buy your big fat tome of a physics textbook and crack it open to see what this stuff is all about. What do you see? Really weird pictures, says Mazur. Elephants sitting on tables (with the force of gravity clearly labeled), a tightrope walker walking a rope slung between two capacitor plates, a huge wrench trying to lever the earth (to illustrate torque), a catapult set up to slingshot stones at a sunbather. “I wish I was making this stuff up,” he said, as he showed us one hilarious image after another — monkeys pulling themselves up a pulley, a periscope allowing a penguin to look underwater, a man standing in a box floating in the ocean (Be sure to download the whole presentation if you want more examples — I don’t want to pirate his presentation any more than necessary to make the point).

These textbook pictures are meant to make the content interesting or funny or engaging for students, but they just come across as strange and silly. They certainly don’t suggest that physics has anything to do with the real world. Silly art makes us look weird, he says.

Physics is Different

Image from M. McCloskey, Intuitive Physics, Scientific American 248 (1983), pp. 122-130

Think about the above image for a moment. Which path is right? If you’re a physics teacher or know something about physics, chances are you chose the parabolic path — path C. That’s what all Mazur’s Harvard colleagues chose — he showed us videotape of them.

But what about when he asked the everypeople out on Harvard square? They all chose path B. Why? Things fall straight down. When he asked them what they’d say if he told them that most physicists chose path C, they said

“I’d take their word for it, but I’d want to know why”

“I’d have to see it.”

“I’d be concerned for the world of physics.”

“I wouldn’t believe you.”

“I’m sure you know what you’re talking about, but why would it go so far forward if you weren’t throwing it?”

He then showed us a video of someone running while they drop a ball. And would you believe it? Path B is the closest to what really happens! The runner would have to be running at 25 miles per hour in order to have the ball drop to the ground where his foot falls at the end of his stride. Or, he’s running on some tiny planet where g is 1/100th that on earth. But as physics folk, we choose the path that fits our model, even if the representation of that model is wrong! None of the professional physicists he asked mentioned that the picture was exaggerated — they were even a little offended that he asked them the question! When he asked them what they would say if he said that path B was actually the most correct, they asked him, “In what sense?” The model overrides our personal experience. No wonder people feel physics doesn’t represent the real world. Illustrations like this are really problematic. They look realistic, but the trajectory of the ball is unrealistic. So there is this unrealistic image projected on a realistic background. How confusing! He showed us about 5 pictures just like this one, taken from physics textbooks.

To make matters worse, in an attempt to make pictures interesting and “real world” textbook artists put all sorts of distracting elements in pictures: hikers, baseball players, bridges, trees. He showed us, for instance, one picture of a boy throwing a ball from a bridge, with trees in the background. The parabolic path of the ball was marked on the diagram. He then showed us results from an eye-tracking study of that image, showing what parts of the picture people looked at. Where did they look? The boy, the ball, the trees, the text showing the height of the bridge. Do they look at the parabolic trajectory at all — the whole point of the diagram? Not really.

These realistic renderings of images are a distraction, he argues, not a help. These are unnecessary elements.

Physics is Confusing

In this part of the talk, he pointed out errors in textbooks, including his own. He asked us, first, are the components of a vector (eg., the x and y components) themselves vectors? There was some disagreement in the audience. There appears to be some disagreement in the textbooks too, as he showed us pages within the same textbook that first showed the components to be vectors, and then scalars, and then vectors again. In his own textbook, he found he was using confusing language to talk about whether “momentum was conserved” versus “the total momentum is constant”. He argued that because we know what we mean when we say something, we’re unconscious of the errors. We’ve become blind to what is actually written because we know what we intend to say. To the physicist it all makes sense, but the students are confused.

To Sum it all up:

Mazur summed up his main points thusly:

  • Silly art makes us look weird
  • Misplaced realism makes physics different
  • Lack of precision confuses

We need to be more careful in our representations, he says.

An audience member asked him what he thought the simplest concept in physics was. He thought for a while but finally answered that no concept is simple. “Sometimes I’m surprised at how we manage to learn,” he said. No wonder these things are difficult, we’ve taken thousands of years to develop our discipline.

Another interesting story, for those familiar with peer instruction. This illustrates just how much faculty can be set in their ways. He gave a talk to faculty and gave them a challenging question that he knew would be a struggle. Their responses showed that there was not a consensus on the right answer. He asked them to turn to their neighbor and discuss the answer. Generally in his classes, this results in an in lively discussion which results in most students choosing the correct answer because they are able to understand the answer as argued by a neighbor. With the faculty, fistfights almost broke out, they argued so vehemently. When he asked them to revote, the results were exactly the same — nobody changed their mind!
Thank you Dr. Mazur for such a wonderful talk!


Ben July 26, 2008 at 11:13 pm

The way I looked at was that when I finally could figure out what the the diagram was illustrating, that was when I knew I understood the text.

sciencegeekgirl July 27, 2008 at 12:48 pm

In other words, that you needed the text to understand the diagram?

Ben July 28, 2008 at 12:35 am

Exactly – I’ve always found diagrams to be pretty useless. Now, on line simulations, of Brownian motion, for example, can be much more informative.

Jim July 29, 2008 at 9:29 am

As the “real live physics professor” to whom you refer in this post, I want to thank you for noting my spouse, Nin Andrews’ Dear Professor collection. She (we) were thrilled to learn that Dr. Mazur had used it in his lecture. I am now very sorry to have missed the meeting and that talk. Thank you for posting a summary. To where can we send you a complimentary copy of the book?

Simon July 29, 2008 at 9:33 am

A colleague showed me Mazur’s ‘dropping ball’ example having been at his talk last week….

I chose ‘B’; should I be worried 🙂

By the way, I can’t wait to try it out on my own colleagues

sciencegeekgirl July 29, 2008 at 12:25 pm

I chose “B” too! Guilty as charged — I didn’t think about my experience, just about the model that I have of parabolic motion.

Ben July 30, 2008 at 11:54 pm

At first glance, I thought it was a picture of a guy trying to dribble a basketball. It doesn’t communicate the time dimension very effectively at all, mushing it together with the space dimension.

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