This is a very personal post for me for two reasons. First, it was a blog who showed me how immensely far reaching the internets possibilities for individual growth have become. On OpenCulture I learned about online university courses, even before the boom of Udacity, EdX, Coursera and so on really started. This caught me in the right time, somewhere at the end of my own university studies and exactly according to my convictions about technology’s effect on mankind. Thankful, my own wish to blog, at least occasionally, was born.
Now, after about two years of studying technical subjects online and nearly from scratch, I can confirm, that it is actually possible to dive deep into a subject, maybe even beyond the sophistication, that you might acquire while completing your local universities master program. You still need the help of books, but you don’t need the mercy of institutions any more.
Because this topic is so immensly important, I might follow up with a deconstruction of typical misconceptions and false informations people sometimes give as far as online learning and knowledge in general is concerned. You might hear for example, that online courses are just a marketing gag by american universities. Sure, but that does not imply bad quality and to my experience, I had not many courses in my regular university program, that would have been able to even come close to the quality of the online content of the MIT for instance. You might get told, that online learning doesn’t advance you in life, because certificates are not yet accepted in the employer’s biosphere or still aren’t free. Granted – but the information is there, and once learned, you pass real examinations if you want, in a minimal amount of time.
But I will talk about this another time. For now I want to get really specific and talk about content related to physics, that is currently available on the net. I will talk about content provided in the english language, because I don’t know any other. In my other fluent tongues, german, french, czech, the foundations of open knowledge have barely been put into the ground.
So assuming one understands English, how do you start learning physics?
You might begin with the three introductory courses 8.01, 8.02, 8.03 on the MIT Open Courseware website. Those teach you the basics of mechanics, electromagnetism and wave physics through one of the most charismatic instructors I’ve ever seen. His demonstrations: you will remember them. His way to tread the blackboard: burned into your cortex. His enthusiasm: contageous: Walter Lewin. All this without ever being superficial, without any false information, as far as his area of expertise is concerned and more importantly: without undue opinions.
There are other popular educators on the net: de Grasse Tyson, Carl Sagan, Lawrence Kraus, the typical TV-channel shows. But those don’t give you the same amount of information. Some of them, are accurate, and very inspiring, but they don’t give you, by definition, any tools to really build up the potential to applicate yourself in some scientific field. Mr Lewin on the other hand, combines this imaginative force, poetic in the sense, that it creates the wish to ask for more every time you just saved new content onto your neuronal harddrive, and technical expertise. And then, these three courses don’t include any misplaced overinformation, opinions: there is no time for it.
It has often been said, what damage a bad teacher can cause. But not so often why this is the case. In my view, it is above all the confusion of opinions and expertise and correspondent character profiles, which cause the most harm. This thought carries very far, but the essence is this: somebody has to explain something to you, that you don’t already know, in terms, which you can understand in the most efficient way. The real work to be done here, is to find the expression, in words, sounds, pictures, that you can most easily relate to, because you recognize most of it, ideally all but the new content that is being taught to you at the moment. Instead of this, most teachers will impose their view, their experiences and their convictions onto you – all kinds of expressions, that are more or less alien to you, just like the actual knowledge behind it. This makes your understanding a more difficult task. But society has it, that, depending on your age, not the teacher’s way to communicate things will be judged, but your ability to process information. Something like “intelligence” will be constructed out of a psychological vastness that is so ambivalent, that nothing can be concluded from it and it will be used to classify learners. Even though I think, that this construct is too dangerous and too unnecessary to be further utilized, i don’t need to go as far to show, that this way must be wrong: better or worse understanding will depend on the brain of the learner but also on the chance to find a teacher, who expresses him/herself in the most efficient way, given one’s own previous knowledge.
This chance factor is the crucial point. It gets smaller, when you learn to process diverse expressions and if more types of expressions are offered to you. I must emphasize: this second part, is a profession! Now what is an opinion in this context? Well for example, that physics must be presented exclusively in the language of math. If you open the average textbook, you don’t understand a word, until you’ve become fluent in calculus and linear algebra. This is an abstraction that might work well for most people, but it is not what physics must look like. Another such opinion is, that science is intrinsically different from other human activities, like art, sports or games. It ought to be more severe, rigorous, precise. A widely debated opinion, that is all but erradicated: women cannot participate in higher order discourses, criminals can’t, young people without some school degree can’t and so on. The list of opinions goes on infinitely and reaches eventually professional convictions: a magnetic monopole can’t exist, the best way to teach mechanics is by vector geometry, not tensors and so on.
Apart from the fact, that such opinions minimize the group of people, who might become interested in a science during their lives, it also makes initiation more difficult. Now people will tell you, physics is boring, hard, abstract – all kinds of nonsense, caused by unqualified teachers. It can’t have in fact any of those qualities: abstract, when it describes just the workings of our surrounding world, boring, when it is the source for facebook and videogames, hard, when it was conceived given the working conditions of human brains.
This is going to be continued. With these three courses of course, one hasn’t learned all of physics yet, but the leap in understanding what happens in the macroscopic world is already enormous. For now, I want to link to some lecture videos. Look at them, when you have some time and see for yourself if your next adventure might be some scuba diving around the colorful reef of physics!
(Pendulum, Oscillators, Crazy Stunt)
(Music, Instruments, Harmonic Series)