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Physics Confidential

Physicists are justly proud of the many ways that their achievements have benefited humankind. But building a light bulb or a telephone doesn’t mean that you understand its basic principles (Thomas Edison and Alexander Bell certainly didn’t), and many physicists seem to have forgotten that distinction.

PRINCETON – Each February, I begin the introductory electricity and magnetism course at Princeton University by telling my students that the material we will cover during the semester provides the basis for modern civilization.

Who could quibble with such an innocent statement? Without the discoveries of nineteenth-century physicists and their successors, we could hardly imagine today’s world: no electrical power grid, no televisions, no satellites, no iPads.

Physicists are justly proud of the many ways that their achievements have benefited humankind. But building a light bulb or a telephone doesn’t mean that you understand its basic principles (Thomas Edison and Alexander Bell certainly didn’t). Unfortunately, many of my colleagues – particularly those who write textbooks – present physics as a towering, seamless basilica, ignoring the gaps in our hodge-podge of skewed models. In fact, what is presented as a shimmering cathedral often more closely resembles a hastily erected shantytown.

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