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Physics learning benefits

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This page lists benefits of learning the subject physics. In other words, it tries to answer the question Why should I learn physics? |See all pages on the benefits of learning specific subjects

Learning physics confers a number of benefits. The magnitude of benefits depends on what parts of physics the person learns, the depth to which the person learns the material, and the person's life goals.

Physics as a first exposure in using mathematical models in a nontrivial real-world setting

Physics is usually the chronologically first subject where people learn how to use mathematical models in a nontrivial real-world setting. In particular:

  • Physics, particularly classical mechanics, has a theoretical structure that relies on some mathematics, but also has a non-mathematical component, namely the choice of laws.
  • Solving physics problems requires setting up systems of equations. The equations are solved mathematically, but setting them up requires reasoning from the constraints of the physical system.
  • A proper understanding of physical models makes predictions about the real world that can then be tested empirically. This gives people experience in using simplified quantitative models to make qualitative predictions about phenomena that are too hard to model explicitly. Some of the predictions are counter-intuitive. In this respect, the benefits of learning physics are similar to the benefits of learning economics.

Physics knowledge in day-to-day life

Physics, up to and including Advanced Placement Physics (or equivalent counterparts, which could be late high school and early college physics), helps provide intuition as to the working of real-world objects and appliances and gadgets. These benefits, however, are quite marginal. Specifically, there are two aspects to this:

  • What matters in day-to-day life is a conceptual understanding of physics ideas, which may not be adequately emphasized in coursework. For instance, we feel acceleration, not velocity is an important corollary of the Newtonian mechanics framework, but it may not stand out to people who have taken physics coursework. Research based on the Force Concept Inventory suggests that people do not learn basic concepts well in college physics classes.
  • The conceptual understanding of physics ideas only provides a small advantage in terms of the amount of time needed to initially pick up the details of specific real-world systems and appliances, and does not seem to be related to how much mastery one can eventually attain. A Newtonian intuition in mechanics might make it somewhat easier to pick up some driving-related ideas, but somebody who lacks the Newtonian intuition in general can still master the ideas through conscious effort and practice. (It's probably good that people don't need to have a knowledge of physics to drive well -- if they did, then there would be a lot more car accidents).

Below are some areas of physics along with the extent to which they are relevant in understanding the world around us:

Area of physics Examples of real-world insights
Classical mechanics (focused on developing Newtonian intuitions) We feel acceleration, not speed, so one shouldn't rely on the intuition of physical sensation regarding one's speed
For more, see this Quora question
Electricity (DC circuits) If you short a circuit, all the current flows through the short, and this can release a huge amount of energy
Arranging resistors in series (such as Christmas lights) means less power per resistor if you're drawing from a source offering constant voltage.
Optics How rearview mirrors and reading glasses work
Thermodynamics This could help one with getting a sense for how thermostats, refrigerators, and home heating systems work. But one would still need to study the details of the systems to understand them. For more, see this Quora question.

Physics knowledge in mechanical engineering and related physically oriented engineering disciplines

Mechanical engineering that operates at ordinary scales of length requires a strong knowledge of basic physics material (most importantly classical mechanics, but also some electricity, optics, and thermodynamics).