Brain Pickings

An Animated Open Letter to President Obama on the State of Science Education

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Reigniting the spark of physics in an education ethos stuck 150 years in the past.

Many of us living in the United States have recently taken a massive exhale at the triumphant news of four more years of sanity and progress. But it isn’t all unicorns and rainbows for President Obama, who will have to address some serious challenges. The fine folks of MinutePhysics — who have previously explained why the color pink doesn’t exist, why the past is different from the future, and why it’s dark at night — have zoomed in one of them in this animated open letter to the President, addressing an astonishing gap in physics education: Namely, the fact that most high school curricula cover none of the physics breakthroughs that have taken place in the past 150 years, including “the topic of every single Nobel Prize in physics since…always.” MinutePhysics advises the President to take a cue from Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, and Neil deGrasse Tyson — men “committed 100% to the dissemination of the awesomeness of the universe” — and reignite the educational spark of physics.

The United States: A country with 5,000 nuclear weapons, birthplace of the world’s computing and telecommunications industry, home of the first atomic clock, and creator of the Global Positioning System. Chances are, if you just took regular American high school physics, you don’t know one iota behind the science behind those things. … That’s because high school physics students across most of America are not required to learn about pretty much any physical phenomena discovered or explained more recently than 1865. Yes, 1865. That’s the year the Civil War ended and well over a decade before Albert Einstein was even born.

Sadly, even if modern physics were required in high school, the question of how much that would actually promote an understanding of physics is a different matter — you needn’t look further than the latest data on state science standards to sigh in desperation:

Luckily, though certainly no substitute for formal education, the internet offers a worthy complement to what the classroom leaves out. To inject your daily information diet with some science-plus magic and wisdom, follow Neil deGrasse Tyson on Twitter, read Joe Hanson’s fantastic It’s Okay To Be Smart and Ed Yong’s Not Exactly Rocket Science (and consider the occasional donation — they’re that good), and peruse the Brain Pickings science archive.

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