Physics vs. Conceptual Physics

Posted on December 25, 2009 by


When I was choosing classes for my senior year of high school, there was a choice between “Conceptual Physics” and “Physics.”

Conceptual Physics was largely perceived by other students as “physics for dummies.” There was no “hard” math, no numbers, just concepts. Nice, soft, easy concepts. Borderline remedial and for kids who were scared to take “real” classes.

Not wanting to be lumped in with the “dummies” (at a school where 99% of the kids go to 4-year universities), I took regular Physics, with numbers. Mean, tough, hard numbers. The “real” Physics. I didn’t really like it or understand anything, but I rolled in at 7:15 every morning (meaning waking up at 6:30 AM) for 1 whole school year and cannot remember a damn thing from the class, except how the book looked and how my motor, my boat,, and mousetrap-powered car all failed.

It’s really a shame that there was such an underlying stigma to taking Conceptual Physics at my high-strung, achievement-obssessed school.

It seems problematic that in my science education that there was such a hierarchy and value placed on “dealing with numbers.” The attempt to just getting the concepts in physics was seen as skirting the “difficulty.” This made taking “regular” physics into a “personal moral story” about “confronting challenge” by dealing with and conquering numbers than actually understanding anything.

Now being comfortably out of high school, having been through an undergraduate public education, a class on Science as a Cultural Practice, Linguistic Anthropology classes, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By, and now Theodore Brown’s book on Science and Metaphors, “Conceptual Physics” probably wouldn’t have been bad.

I’m guessing that an education and focus on concepts as that in “Conceptual Physics” would have enabled me to think more clearly about physics problems.

Maybe I would have been a lot more scientifically literate and confident to having been a science major. Maybe I would have had more idea about the concept of momentum rather than being caught up in trying to figure out what formulas I had to use to finish my homework. Maybe I would have seen better how things worked and found an interest in physics, rather than slaving and fighting my way to make sure I did well enough on homework and tests.

I really don’t know what I would have learned in “Conceptual Physics”, but I’m guessing that I would have perceived of the concepts as more than rote, unrelated sentences and phrases that I had to force myself to commit to memory.

I just think that if I had an idea of what a concept was like in real life, perhaps I would have been better at retaining the information long-term. And by retaining in my long-term memory, perhaps eventually use the information to think more richly about other concepts in my everyday life.