Is Physics a language class?

When I teach Physics, I like to focus heavily on the conceptual side, as well as the process of problem solving and how to think about problems in general, rather than just the mechanics of the math. After all, the math we do in Physics is typically a year or more behind what they are actually studying in Math class, so they should be pretty good at it. In other words, I like to get metacognitive about the subject.

Physics is not exactly about the real world. Physics is about studying mathematical representations (models) of reality, in hopes that those representations can be predictive. For the cognoscenti, real science hides in the places where the math does not predict what we see in the real world, but we rarely delve into those places in school. Instead, we focus on how the models do match and predict reality. In any event, we need to translate what we see around us into math in order to manipulate the model, and then translate it back from math to real world.

It is that translation piece that got me thinking about the title of this post. When we do physics, we are really “translating” from the language of the real world top the language of mathematics – a bit like translating a question from German to English, answering the question in English, and then translating it back – the grammar doesn’t always match, so we have to be judicious in how we translate. And when we study languages we learn to recognize the nuances of each, and the differences in how they work to express things. Likewise in Physics, we need to recognize how a mathematical representation is similar to, and how it differs from the real world.  There are of course other ways to represent reality – artistic, linguistic, and so on, as well as other analogies for translation (thinking gene expression here…), but I’m not sure they convey the same sense of how Physics operates.

Here’s the thing – though I have learned other languages, I have never taught other languages, so I don’t really have a sense of the metacognition of that process. I think it’s about time I explored that in order to develop a full toolkit to help my students understand more about the process of doing Physics.

 

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