Is physics a creative subject?

Luke Holder.

Creativity is being able to use original or imaginative ideas to create or do something. Physics as taught in schools does not involve creativity. Doing a short experiment, committing definitions to memory and solving written problems. These are three of the biggest things students at lower levels of education experience in physics classes. No creativity is required to jump through these hoops. This paints a drab, boring picture for students who do not go further than this. Physics is about solving problems and a lot of creativity is required to do so. Inventiveness and creativity go hand in hand in physics and a lot of major breakthroughs have happened because of this. This article will go over education of physics and creative thinkers in science with specific examples.

Creativity is generally associated with the arts. An assessment for an art based subject in school is very different to that of a science based subject. One examination board’s GCSE physics syllabus consists of two exams at the end of years 10 and 11 [1]. The descriptions of the questions are as follows ‘Multiple choice, structured, closed short answer and open response’. This translates to an exam which tests merely the ability of the candidate to remember facts and use them. Although other exam boards may have a differing syllabus, the fact that no experiments are even part of this syllabus is shocking. The arts and sciences are very different subjects and the methods of examination must be different, but taking the creativity out of physics and hiding it behind an exam shaped wall is worrying.

Creative thinking is an important part of being a physicist. A common question in the lab is if a piece of apparatus doesn’t work correctly, how can it be fixed? A personal example is when testing fluorescence spectroscopy on a thin film sample. For some reason the sample holder was causing a peak in the spectra. A simple solution was to cover up the reflective surface with something less reflective, like black tape. Doing so reduced the size of the peak considerably and allowed the experiment to go on. The point is that we do not get to exercise creativity as much in an environment where regurgitating knowledge is the ideal. The problems associated with current examinations in physics not being the most accurate depiction of physics are unfortunately something that is unlikely to change soon.

Showing creativity in physics does not have to involve complexity and be hard for regular people to understand. Rutherford’s experiment to determine the structure of the atom, which at the time was being done to test the ‘plum pudding’ model, led to a great discovery about atomic structure by doing something so simple. Putting the detector on the same side as the emitter. Something as simple as that yet so far out of the box is an excellent example of creativity. It shows that creativity is not only limited to cutting edge research. Creativity is something that pushes the boundaries set by the normal way of thinking. Before wave-particle duality theory it was unheard of to consider particles as having wave-like properties and vice versa. Light had always been thought of as a wave. Einstein finding evidence for light having a particle like nature resulted in a great debate amongst the greatest scientists in the world over the nature of light, with evidence proving and disproving both sides. Only by throwing conventional thinking aside and coming up with something so brilliantly ridiculous could the problem be solved. This idea could then be used to even greater effect. The invention of the electron microscope led on from this theory by considering the reverse. What if particles have wave like properties? This simple thought led to many different types of imaging techniques which could show even smaller length scales than the conventional microscope. Nanoscale imaging and being able to get resolution at which we can see individual atoms is incredibly inventive. To then take this and go further as to manipulate individual atoms [2] is a great example of a creative leap in physics. Creative thinking like this isn’t something that can be taught easily and inspiring others to go into this line of study requires a strong influence.

Although the examples we’ve seen are inspirational, they are not in the public eye. People who show physics as being something wonderful and amazing, as we know it is, to a wider audience are key in getting a more diverse range of people to take up physics at an undergraduate level. Brian Cox and his series ‘Wonders of the Universe’ has seen a rise in undergraduates applying to physics courses [3]. Many people who would not have chosen to study physics have been inspired by his show. From this they can then experience the side of physics where they can utilize their creativity: at an undergraduate level. These people can then go on to inspire others, either through teaching or by being a part of an exciting breakthrough.

Is changing the syllabus at a lower level a viable option? Unfortunately, the current methods of teaching and examining students are so ingrained into the education system that a change is not viable. The best thing for bringing in creative minded people to physics is by popular mainstream media. People like Brian Cox, regardless of how you feel about him, are bringing in more applicants and hence more creative thinkers are turning towards physics. Promoting physics in an interesting way is also a good way of removing the stereotype of physicists as being people who just sit in the lab all day. The first steps to inspiring creativity in a subject is to get creatively minded people to be interested in the subject and there are a lot of inspiring physicists out there. People are more likely to find out about them because of mainstream media. This can then show them that physics is in fact a creative subject.

[1] – http://www.aqa.org.uk/subjects/science/gcse/physics-8463/specification-at-a-glance

[2] – Atomic and Molecular Manipulation with the Scanning Tunneling Microscope

Stroscio, Joseph A; Eigler, D M. Science254.5036 (Nov 29, 1991): 1319.

[3] – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/9793822/Brian-Cox-effect-leads-to-surge-in-demand-for-physics.html

 

Is physics a creative subject?

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