Physics as a "Voyage of Discovery"

Unfortunately, the teaching of elementary physics has become locked-in as a History of Science course, or "Voyage of Discovery." Existing knowledge is presented in the chronological order of its discovery, and the emphasis is placed on the various misconceptions that were eventually corrected by specific experiments (most of which are archaic in comparison to modern methods of demonstrating the same facts). Despite the detailed conceptual picture that we now have of the physical universe, that knowledge is de-emphasized, and instead our basic courses emphasize the methodology by which flawed perspectives were discarded.

As an analogy, let us ask, is it possible for a student to gain knowledge about North America, without first learning that it was discovered in 1492 by Christopher Columbus in his three ships "Pinta," "Nina," and "Santa Maria?" (Columbus' fourth ship is seldom mentioned, as it had the misfortune to sail off the edge of the earth.) Is it possible to understand all of the intricacies of North American geography, biology, socialogy, history, etc., without first learning the various misconceptions spawned by the Dark Ages of Medieval Europe?

The Physics Professor's philosophy would say no - students cannot grasp current knowledge directly without first experiencing the confusion of the early explorers. Students cannot be introduced directly to the concept of position probability densities in space (i.e., a time exposure of a moving object) without first learning the difference between speed and acceleration, even though these quantities do not enter the modern quantum mechanical formulation. The Newtonian liturgy of "forces," "action," and "reaction" are a figment of Newton's ignorance of the atomic and electromagnetic nature of matter, the conservation of momentum, and the virtual photon field that couples all the matter in the universe.

To illustrate the absurdity of forcing students to learn "Columbus's laws of Geography" before allowing them to see NASA pictures from space of the earth, consider the anology presented on the next transparency.