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Bad Advice To The Student Of Physics.

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Posted by John Morgan Powell on February 22, 2001 00:00:26 UTC

Benjamin Nelson,

To someone asking how to learn physics you suggested:

> I would begin learning physics by starting with
> the pre-Socratics, then moving on to the more
> recent ideas of Plato and Aristotle.

That sounds like terrible advice. Would you recommend someone wanting to study geology to begin by reading ancient Jewish commentaries on Noah's flood? If someone wanted to become an M.D. should she spend long hours reading potion recipes from ancient medicine men before she gets to begin studying biochemistry?

As evidenced by the amount of treatment that is given the subject in typical textbooks of physics, the history of pre-Copernican science has a small, but important place in the teaching of physics. Nevertheless, your recommendation makes it sound like the student should put great effort into reading numerous outdated sources before they even reach Aristotle whose views on physics were also outdated.

How long will it be before your student of physics begins to study the concepts of Galileo, Kepler, and Newton? How long after that will it be before he's allowed to learn the mathematical and physics skills necessary to solve typical physics problems?

I recommend the student take college/university courses in physics based on typical textbooks. If his goal is to learn physics he shouldn't spend very much time reading the works of the Pre-Socratics---they were physics morons compared to post-Copernican scientists. Study those things only if he wants to better understand the ancient roots of science or to become a philosopher.

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