Teaching Physics in the 21st Century

David Cowles

Jul 5, 2022

Schools will soon be reopening with kids returning to begin a new school year. Now is the time to begin thinking about the fall curriculum. In this article, we outline a 10-unit physics curriculum for grades four through eight, all based on The Yellow Submarine.

(Editor’s Note: ATM Issue #1 included a feature article, Science & The Yellow Submarine – Part I. As promised, Part II will be published in ATM Issue #3 (9/1/2022). In the meantime, schools will soon be reopening with kids returning to begin a new school year. Now is the time to begin thinking about the Fall curriculum. In this article, we outline a 10-unit physics curriculum for grades 4 through 8, all based on the Yellow Sub.)


“Physics is too hard…and it’s oh so boring! Besides, when will I ever use it?”

Sound familiar? These are the same complaints we’ve heard from students for generations. Heck, I probably said the very same things myself when I was in high school.


125 years ago, lack of formal training in the ‘hard sciences’ was no obstacle to understanding, appreciating, and participating in the world. After all, science still more or less accepted the tenets of ‘naïve realism’: i.e., the world for the most part is the way it appears to be. High school dropouts and Ivy League professors shared this same basic world view.


The principal task of scientific inquiry during the Enlightenment (1700 – 1900) was to explain how it is that things are the way they are and to explore how those things could be put to work for our benefit. It did not ask why because the assumption from the start was that there is no why; what is just is!


Although he probably didn’t realize it at the time, the physicist Enrico Fermi blew the top off this Newtonian world view in 1900 after conducting a series of rather arcane experiments. Fermi asked how so-called ‘black bodies’ emit radiation.


Commonsense suggests that radiation emitted by a black body should be made up of a continuous spectrum of wavelengths. Fermi’s experiments showed that commonsense was wrong. (Side bar: At the time this conclusion was startling. Today, we would just say, oh well, commonsense is wrong again – as usual!)


Fermi discovered that radiation emitted by a black body is emitted, not across a continuous spectrum of wave lengths, but at one of just a few discrete wavelengths. Radiation might be emitted with a wavelength of X or a wavelength of Y but not with a wavelength somewhere between X and Y.


Of course, the scientific establishment’s initial reaction was to doubt the experimental results, and failing that, to tweak the Newtonian model as little as possible to accommodate the new data.


The ‘academy’ responded in just this way to every new scientific breakthrough. First reaction, “there’s something wrong with the data”; and when that argument collapses, “how can we tweak the prevailing model as little as possible?”


Prior to Galileo, and even afterwards in some quarters, each new astronomical observation was shoehorned into the Ptolemaic model, tweaking that model as little as possible to accommodate the new data points.


Awful, right? Wrong! The scientific community is doing just exactly what it should be doing: responding to new data, first with healthy skepticism, and then by ‘minimally modifying’ its current models to accommodate the vetted new data. We wouldn’t have it any other way! Think of it as an extension of Occam’s Razor.


But sometimes, this conservative strategy breaks down. Galileo and Copernicus, for example, realized that the new astronomical data could not be reasoned away or neatly folded into the Ptolemaic model.

Sometimes, as the Cars pointed out in their hit song, Drive, “You can’t go on thinking nothing’s wrong!” Sometimes, revolution is the only option. Who among us, sitting on his recliner, drinking a beer, and watching the game on TV, is anxious for revolution? But it happens, and when it happens, Katie bar the door: it’s open season and there are no sacred cows; the entire corpus of scientific ‘knowledge’ is opened to scrutiny.


That’s just what happened, beginning in 1900. A year earlier, few scientists, if any, thought that Newtonian cosmology would ever be replaced by a different framework. Who could even imagine what such a framework might look like? The validity of Newton’s scheme seemed unassailable; today it lies in shambles!


20th century scientists painstakingly dismantled Newton’s model, unraveling the entire ball of yarn that was 19th century cosmology. First, Einstein showed that space and time, assumed to be ultimate physical constants, were in fact ‘relative’ to one other and to mass and to motion.


Then another gaggle of geeks built a fresh model of the universe based on Fermi’s findings. The new model included discrete packets of energy (quanta) in lieu of a smooth spectrum of continuous values.

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that pretty much everything we thought we knew in 1899 about the structure of the universe was wrong!


So far, so good. It is entirely appropriate that new scientific paradigms should replace older theories and their retreads. But still, ‘something’s wrong.’


In 1899, a high school dropout had about the same view of the universe as a member of Harvard’s physics faculty. Today, only a handful of non-specialists understand the latest developments in theoretical and experimental physics, and this is a problem.


Given a test, I wager that 95% of American adults would describe the universe in essentially Newtonian terms. Outside of science fiction (thank God for sci-fi), Relativity and Quantum Mechanics have for the most part not yet spilled out of the academy into the streets. As a result, we live in a world whose workings are understood by just a handful of people.


“Danger, Will Robinson!” This state-of-affairs threatens the fabric of society. A tiny cadre of cognoscenti presides over the intellectual life of the planet. You might describe today’s scientifically educated as ‘Oligarchs of Information.’


In a democracy, ignorance itself can be dangerous. We ask our electorate to guide the ship of state; well and good, but are we entirely comfortable with this arrangement knowing that that guidance will likely be based on 300-year-old notions of what is real and what isn’t?


For us as religious educators, the problem is even more acute. How do we teach young people about the majesty of God and the justice of his Kingdom when they are working with a mechanical model of reality?


I believe the Beatles’ classic movie, Yellow Submarine (1968) can be a powerful teaching tool for students, especially for students in grades four through eight. “I know your game, Dealer! I know you’re using all this cool music and all these cool graphics just to get our kids hooked.”


You’re absolutely right! That’s exactly what I’m doing. And let me tell you, if you are going to get a kid hooked on science, this is your chance! But how do we hook a kid on science if we can’t find a way to make it interesting? Not by teaching the properties of pulleys and inclined planes, that’s for sure.

Fact: Science is fascinating! Young people instinctively love it.


Idea: Instead of teaching science from the bottom-up (“Don’t worry, you’ll get to the interesting stuff in college”), let’s try teaching from the top down. Expose as many students as possible, as early as possible, to the mind-bending ideas of 20th century physics; then see what happens!


This is the age when kids are most likely to be interested in comic books and graphic novels, and Yellow Submarine is the ultimate graphic novel (ok, film)! Are you ‘on board’ (pun intended)? Then take a look at this basic outline of a 10-unit lesson plan that turns the movie, Yellow Submarine, into a physics textbook no student can put down.


(Note: I have no preconception regarding the length or spacing of these ’10 Lessons.’ Each lesson could last an hour…or a lot longer. Each lesson could be taught in succession, one day one lesson. Or each lesson could be spaced over several class periods so that it would take 10 weeks to complete the program. The good news is, ‘It doesn’t matter!’ Any of these formats will work!)


Welcome aboard!


Lesson #1: Welcome to the Yellow Submarine

  • Introduce the Beatles, the film and the '60s culture.

  • Watch the film together, if possible, otherwise in small groups or at home.

  • Question: “Do we live in Pepperland? How so? How not?”

  • Question: “Ok then, do we live in Liverpool? How so, how not?”

  • Note students’ initial responses to both questions and compare them with what they have to say at the end of the course.


Lesson # 2: The Pier

  • Question: “How is life on the Pier different from the life we’re used to?”

  • Introduce the basics of Hugh Everett’s Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics: roughly, whatever can happen does happen… somewhere (i.e., in some ‘world’).

  • Introduce concepts from Stephen Gould’s book, It’s a Wonderful Life: roughly, species are the way they are, but they could just as well have been very different. Could there be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy?

  • Question: “What happens to the world when we’re not looking at it?”

  • Does it just continue on as is?

  • Does it continue on, but not as is?

  • Or does it simply vanish until we look again?

  • How do we know?


Lesson # 3: The Sea of Time

  • Question: “What is time?”

  • Introduce the basics of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

  • Question: “Can you imagine a world without time?”

  • What would it be like?

  • Would you like to live in such a world?

  • Question: “Ok then, can you imagine a world with time but where time somehow works differently from the way it does here?”

  • How could time be different?

  • Can you design a world you’d like to live in?

  • Introduce examples from Einstein’s Dreams

  • Introduce the topic of time travel: what are the main problems?

  • Question: “If you could travel in time, where (what year or era) would you most like to visit? Why?”

  • Question: “If you could move back and forth in time, what age would you choose to be? Older? Younger? Or the same age you are now? Why?”


Lesson # 4: The Sea of Science (Space)

  • Introduce basic concepts in Topology.

  • Question: “Can you describe the topology of our world?”

  • Question: “Can you imagine a world with a different topology?

  • What would it be like to live in such a world?

  • Introduce the Platonic Solids

  • Introduce the Holographic Principle

  • The information content of a space is proportionate to its surface area, not its volume.


Lesson # 5: The Sea of Monsters

  • Introduce concepts from D’arcy Thompson’s On Growth and Form.

  • Revisit concepts from Stephen Gould’s It’s a Wonderful Life.

  • Design a life form that incorporates organs from more than one species.

  • Design a life form that incorporates both organic and mechanical features.

  • In what ways have we already begun to break down the barriers between species and between the organic and the mechanical?

  • Transplanting a pig’s heart into a human

  • Installing a Pacemaker

  • Installing an Artificial heart


Lesson # 6: The Dreaded Vacuum Monster (VM).

  • Question: “Why is the Vacuum Monster ‘dreaded?’

  • Review the actions of VM: the sequence, e.g.

  • Introduce the concept of Entropy.

  • Question: “How is the Vacuum Monster like Entropy?”

  • Introduce the concept of an ‘ouroboros.’

  • Question: “Is our universe an ouroboros? Is it fated to consume itself?”

  • Question: “Why does VM consume itself?”

  • Question: “Is anything left after VM does its worst? If so, what?”

  • Question: “Why does the Submarine and its crew survive?”

  • Introduce Jeremy Hillary Boob, PhD.


Lesson # 7: Dr. Boob.

  • Introduce the concept of Information: roughly, the difference between what is and what could have been.

  • Analyze Dr. Boob’s dialog: “Do you speak English? ‘Old English, Middle English, a dialect pure.’ But do you speak English? "You know, I’m not sure.”

  • Question: “What’s the difference between useful and useless information?”

  • Question: “Does information need to ‘know’ itself to be useful?”

  • Question: “Why do they call Dr. Boob, ‘the nowhere man?’”

  • Question: “How does JHB go from being a ‘nowhere man’ to being a ‘somewhere man?’”

  • “What makes someone be a somewhere person?”


Lesson # 8: The Foothills of the Headlands

  • Question: “What would life be like if you had a mind but no body?”

  • Question: “Would you rather be ‘embodied’ or ‘disembodied?’ Would you rather live in RL or in VR?”

  • Question: “How is a mind different from a body? Can you have either one without the other?”

  • Supplemental material: Max Headroom (TV Series), The Matrix (Films), Alice in Wonderland (The Cheshire Cat).


Lesson # 9: The Sea of Holes & the Sea of Green

  • Introduce the concepts of ‘figure & ground,’ ‘being & nothingness.’

  • Introduce the concept of a ‘cosmic membrane,’ an ‘event horizon.’

  • Question: How is the Sea of Green like an event horizon?

  • Question: “Why do you think the Beatles included a ‘Sea of Green’ on the way to Pepperland? What does it do? Why is it important?”

  • Question: “Why do you think the Beatles made these two seas the last two seas on the journey?”


Lesson # 10:Pepperland at last!

  • Question: “What are the main features of Pepperland?

  • Question: “How is Pepperland like Liverpool? How is it different?”

  • Question: “Would you want to live in Pepperland forever if you could? Why? Or why not?”

  • Question: “Now that you know all about life in Pepperland, do you feel better or worse about your own life?”

  • Repeat the questions from Lesson #1:

  • “Do we live in Pepperland? How so? How not?”

  • “Or do we live in Liverpool? How so? How not?”

  • “Or both? If both, how both?”

  • Let’s talk about the trip we’ve just taken:

  • “Did you have fun?”

  • “Along the way, did you learn anything about the world you live in?”

  • “Can you use anything you learned from the trip to make your life better?”


Provisional thesis: Like all great works of art, there will never be a ‘definitive interpretation’ of Yellow Submarine. That’s the beauty of masterpieces: they speak to everyone in every era, but they also say different things to different people – all of them valid, all of them true. My own, personal and, and totally tentative understanding?

  • There is only one world: Pepperland, Liverpool and wherever your classroom happens to be located.

  • Liverpool is the spatiotemporal aspect of reality; Pepperland is the eternal aspect of the same events.


The branes (seas) are layers of reality (time, space, body, mind, information, le neant). Both Pepperland and Liverpool can be broken down into these component branes.


 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.


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