Why I Teach History in My Physics Class

Elissa Levy
Apr 3 · 7 min read

It’s imperative.

An old New York Regents Physics exam — but not the first! (Thanks to Keith Sheppard for sharing it.)

I chose to study physics in college because I wanted to explain the universe. I succeeded in the physics major because I was told — over and over, explicitly and implicitly — that I belonged. (I didn’t know at the time how rare this was for a woman in a university physics program.) But despite these boosts, the exclusionary social structures of academic physics still took their toll on my mental health. At the time, I didn’t know why.

A decade later, now a high school physics teacher (having left a successful hedge fund career to teach in the New York City public school system), I began for the first time to wonder how we came to teach physics the way we do. When I was in high school in the early ’00s, I was taught that biology, chemistry, and physics are the “real” sciences, though physics is the hardest, and geology is an easy semi-science course for unserious students. Obviously, this narrative is false. High school science courses are largely unchanged from a century ago and were not deliberately engineered to meet the needs of today’s students and tomorrow’s workforce. [Update: this blog post goes deeper into why physics belongs in ninth grade.] Traditional high school science sequences also exclude key STEM fields like computation and engineering, and they create artificial and pedagogically senseless hierarchy and exclusion within the fields that are represented.

As teachers, though, it’s difficult to directly influence the overall course sequence. We can only design the classes we teach. So what CAN we do? We can (and must!) empower students to interrogate the required learning standards while they learn those standards. This is the first pillar (in purple) from the Equity in STEM framework that I use.

Early and often in my physics course, I ask students to engage with these questions:

“What is physics?”

“Who decided that physics should be a high school science course (as opposed to all the other things that aren’t taught in high school)?”

“How did we decide which aspects of physics belong in high school versus college or grad school?”

The answers are not obvious. First of all, all science is interdisciplinary, which makes physics as a field extremely challenging to define. Second, our commonly accepted biology-chemistry-physics sequence in high school was not the deliberate result of thoughtful pedagogical work; rather it was happenstance. Third, the content of high school and introductory college physics courses is now stuck for inertial reasons. Mechanics (that is, Newton’s Laws) and electromagnetism, which are considered the core components of intro physics, have become gatekeeper content: they’re the topics people “need” to know; they’re the topics needed for the MCAT. But these topics are neither necessary nor sufficient to capture the glory of physics more broadly.

Photo by Georg Eiermann on Unsplash

So, how is it that mechanics and electromagnetism came to be the physics canon? The answer is simple: the physics we teach is white European physics. It’s all about history. Every year, I teach a lesson where students look at the common names for equations, laws, and units of measure in physics, and they realize that those names are all white men. We celebrate Newton, Joule, Volta, etc. for their developments implicitly through their eponymous equations and units of measure. Although white Europeans are neither the only ones who developed important ideas nor the only ones whose ideas are worth studying, theirs are the voices that have been elevated in our formal physics courses. Indeed “the ‘European’ and ‘western’ worlds have often received credit for the advancement of science and the application of technology for development….It is as if the world is finally catching up with the realization that science and technology rose from the collective knowledge of the human experience….This is important to recognize; technological and scientific breakthroughs occurred independently in many parts of the world” (Paul E. Lovejoy for UNESCO).

To the extent that our high school and college coursework have highlighted scientific achievements outside of Europe, those discussions probably took place in history classes rather than in science classes. This perpetuates the false, dangerous notion that all cultures are worth studying but only the dominant white culture produced “real” physics.

The notion is manifestly false because other cultures produced important physics developments long before Western Europe: Native Americans developed electrochemistry (the foundation of batteries) around 600 CE. Magnetic compasses were used in East Asia over 1000 years ago. Scientists in India understood 1500 years ago that the earth rotated on its axis and that the moon shone with reflected sunlight.

The notion that white physics is “real” physics is dangerous because it inappropriately elevates dominant narratives, suppressing new ideas and ways of thinking, preventing us from doing as much good as we can with our research. Science benefits from cross-cultural and intergenerational insight. It’s an inherently human endeavor, and we achieve more for society when we recognize it as such. (I recommend this book, by the way.)

Thus, here are two conversations we have in my physics classroom when we study traditional mechanics: (1) Why was it Newton who discovered Newton’s Laws? Why not someone else? (2) Which other core principles of physics could and should be part of our intro sequence, other than Newton’s Laws?

For (1), my students talk about how anyone, anywhere COULD have figured out Newton’s Laws. I thank Emma Jablonski for sharing two articles with me on this topic, which my physics students now read every year. The first article we discuss, by Boris Hessen, suggests that Newton’s discoveries occurred because of the 17th-century merchant economy. Warfare, seafaring, etc. were enhanced by the study of mechanics, and so Newton’s work was funded and socially acclaimed because of its political alignment. Indeed, scientific research is only given mainstream support when it operates in political alignment with the dominant class. That said, there’s another side too: Graham’s piece criticizes Hessen’s “product of his times” argument about Newton, by explaining that Hessen’s inclination to make the argument he made was because Hessen was a product of his own times. It’s an eye-opening conversation for my 9th grade physics students. (Here’s the graphic organizer I use with students, which helps us isolate Hessen’s and Graham’s key arguments more efficiently.)

Furthermore: Newton may be the first person we know who united three particular principles of force in a coherent set of written laws, but Newton was not the first one to discover them all. For example, there is documentation of the law of inertia from the Middle East, 700 years prior to Newton’s work.

Ironically, Isaac Newton is credited with saying, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the sholders [sic] of Giants.” But the phrase and concept precede him by millennia, dating as far back as Greek mythology. (Furthermore, as Axel Schmidt brought to my attention from this Robert Crease book, Newton’s “shoulders of giants” comment may have actually been intended to mock his scientific adversary Hooke because of Hooke’s diminutive stature. My biggest takeaway from this is that we must be diligent in pursuing historical context and uncovering unintended and possibly false assumptions about what actually happened.)

So then we turn to (2), the discussion of alternate narratives. I’ve encountered helpful resources such as this one from AIP, but I have yet to find a comprehensive introduction to physics that tells a fully worldwide story — especially from Newton’s time and earlier. Thus, I’ve been doing my own research project to collate worldwide physics achievements that pre-date Newton, many of which were rediscovered in Europe centuries later. The only logical conclusion is that we teach Newton’s work as foundational precisely because of the dominance of the white Western narrative. The resources I have found so far are located here. Please write in the comments if you want to add resources or collaborate on this project.

Vacuum Jar for physics research, from cb products on amazon.com

As my colleague, Anna Phillips said, “Physics doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” The things we teach in science class aren’t objective, sterile, isolated truths. Rather, they are interwoven models to explain and predict the aspects of the world that privileged groups have chosen to study. Physics is knowledge that’s been constructed by people, which other people have chosen to teach. The historical and social context of physics is an inherent part of the subject, and you cannot teach physics without it.

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Elissa Levy

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I teach physics and computer science in East Harlem, New York. I aim to engage.

Educate.

Educate magnifies the voices of changemakers in education. We empower educators to share their stories, ideas, insights, and inspiration. Educate is dedicated to the fusion of research + education policy and practice.