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Does physics taste like alphabet soup?

When students start studying physics with me, I ask many of them whether physics feels like ‘alphabet soup’ – a collection of formulas they must memorize. Most of them agree, and some agree enthusiastically as if to say, “That’s my feeling exactly!”

This impression of physics is ironic. More than any other field of science, basic physics can be derived from a small number of observations and mathematical models. For example, when introducing momentum, I like to tell students that a good definition of mass is that if you drop it on your foot, it hurts. While physics is a bit more complicated than that, this definition of mass dramatizes that every concept and relationship in physics is defined in terms of observations.

From examining the prep books for physics exams, I can see why many students get this impression of physics. Most students learn that the most basic concepts in mechanics are force and ‘F = m a.’ A better answer is that momentum is the foundation of mechanics and the key relation is p = m v (where 'p’ is momentum). The solution for circular motion boils down to memorizing formula for acceleration, and the solution for harmonic oscillators boils down to memorizing the formula for frequency of oscillation.

Tutors can help students build a richer understanding of physics in several ways. Use intriguing practical illustrations. Use concepts of slope of a curved line and area under a curve to explain relationships between position, velocity and acceleration, and other relationships. Provide a better qualitative understanding of orbital motion and oscillation. For students who know calculus, it is easier to convey a broader and deeper understanding of physics.

A combination of problem-solving skills, empirical experience, and an intuitive grasp of physics – so that physics doesn't taste like ‘alphabet soup’ – is the best foundation for learning physics.