Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Historical Method in Teaching Physics

The French physicist Pierre Duhem wrote:
The legitimate, sure and fruitful method of preparing a student to receive a physical hypothesis is the historical method. To retrace the transformations through which the empirical matter accrued while the theoretical form was first sketched; to describe the long collaboration by means of which common sense and deductive logic analyzed this matter and modeled that form until one was exactly adapted to the other: that is the best way, surely even the only way, to give to those studying physics a correct and clear view of the very complex and living organization of this science [emphasis added] (Duhem, P.: 1905/1954, ‘The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory’, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, p. 268).
Ernst Mach also advocated the history and philosophy of science (HPS) teaching method:
A person who has read and understand the Greek and Roman authors has felt and experiencedmore than one who is restricted to the impression of the present. He sees how men, placed in different circumstances, judge quiet differently of the same things from what we do today. His own judgments will be rendered thus more independent (Mach, E.: 1886/1986, ‘On instruction the Classics and the Sciences’, In: ‘Popular Scientific Lectures’, Open Court Publishing Company, La Sale, IL., p. 347).
Igal Galili, author of "Experts’ Views on Using History and Philosophy of Science in the Practice of Physics Instruction," wrote to me that the historical method "presents a great controversy in university physics textbooks of physics."

Arnold B. Arons, in his Teaching Introductory Physics, opposes the HPS teaching method; he thinks something "goes wrong if you suspend judgment (page I-229) in order to retrace historical footsteps."

Why is this? Do you agree or disagree? Is the historical method a "legitimate, sure and fruitful method of preparing a student to receive a physical hypothesis"?

Cf. this StackExchange discussion of this topic.

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