Saturday, September 02, 2006

...and I always thought I studied science!

I have been reading Richard Feynman's autobiography for some time, and today I came across a chapter which I simply must write about, because I feel it is about me, and millions of other students in our country.

A few excerpts from the book itself will make it clear. Feynman was visiting Brazil to teach at a university in Rio de Janeiro. He was teaching Physics students who were going to become teachers. He says:

Later I attended a lecture at the engineering school. The lecture went like this, translated into English: "Two bodies . . . are considered equivalent . . . if equal torques . . . will produce . . . equal acceleration. Two bodies, are considered equivalent, if equal torques, will produce equal acceleration." The students were all sitting there taking dictation, and when the professor repeated the sentence, they checked it to make sure they wrote it down all right. Then they wrote down the next sentence, and on and on. I was the only one who knew the professor was talking about objects with the same moment of inertia, and it was hard to figure out.

I didn't see how they were going to learn anything from that. Here he was talking about moments of inertia, but there was no discussion about how hard it is to push a door open when you put heavy weights on the outside, compared to when you put them near the hinge--nothing!

After the lecture, I talked to a student: "You take all those notes--what do you do with them?"

"Oh, we study them," he says. "We'll have an exam."

"What will the exam be like?"

"Very easy. I can tell you now one of the questions." He looks at his notebook and says, “‘When are two bodies equivalent?' And the answer is, 'Two bodies are considered equivalent if equal torques will produce equal acceleration.' So, you see, they could pass the examinations, and "learn" all this stuff, and not know anything at all, except what they had memorized.

And again:

One other thing I could never get them to do was to ask questions. Finally, a student explained it to me: "If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, 'What are you wasting our time for in the class? We're trying to learn something. And you're stopping him by asking a question'."

It was a kind of one-upmanship, where nobody knows what's going on, and they'd put the other one down as if they did know. They all fake that they know, and if one student admits for a moment that something is confusing by asking a question, the others take a high-handed attitude, acting as if it's not confusing at all, telling him that he's wasting their time.

Isn’t this the exact scenario in Indian schools and colleges? Everybody wants to pass the exams, nobody wants to know. Getting marks is more important than gaining knowledge. And we think we are progressing? Our educational institutes are doing a great job? Why does a nation with over a billion people have to think before coming up with names of five world famous Indian scientists then? Here’s what Feynman said about Brazil in his speech at the end of his stay there:

So I tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it's amazing you don't find many physicists in Brazil--why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it.

Then I held up the elementary physics textbook they were using…and started to read: "Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed..

I said, "And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven't told anything about nature-what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can't.

"But if, instead, you were to write, 'When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called "triboluminescence."' Then someone will go home and try it. Then there's an experience of nature."

I haven’t read a more accurate description of our education system than this.

I have often faced a situation during my school or college days where I have asked for a concrete example for the phenomenon that the professor was explaining, and I was told not to bother about examples but to learn up the things that were taught. If someone asked a question in the class, the others scolded him for that. How can we expect to achieve anything significant in science if we have an attitude like this? I know, there are naïve people around who will jump up on reading this post and try to make me memorise (that’s the only way of understanding they know) that things have changed, India is progressing; Indian scientists are doing great work, not only outside India but here as well. But unfortunately the truth is, nothing has changed yet. We are opening new schools, colleges and universities everyday, but we don’t care about the quality of teaching. There are scientists who are doing a great job, but they are doing it in spite of the system and not because of it.

When we are in a rat race, we are rats even if we win. I am an office rat now. Who has time to think about all this nonsense anyway? I myself will be executing memorised algorithms again tomorrow. Who has time for useless questions like “Why”? Even if I ask I’ll be told that it is “outside the scope” of my work.

Only problem is, I always thought I was a science student in school and college. Feynman made me see my mistake. Like he said, “No science is being taught in Brazil!” I can also safely conclude “No science is being taught in India!” As an Indian, I find that a fairly disturbing idea.


  1. Great...Actually sometimes I studied science. My science teacher used to ask students to taste chilly powder to prove that it is HOT. In B.Tech too our physics prof(Prof. Vijay Aware) really showed us cathode rays and electronic arc, newton's rings and surface tension and refractometer too. Same prof was responsible for introduction of difficult most part machinery designing in BTech curriculum despite of fierce resistance from other members of committee. I am thankful to some of profs who really tought me Science. You article remin me of few those who were serious in their profession rather than just telling meaning of one long word using many short words.

  2. Great post, Joyful. Is it ok if I nominate this one to Desi Pundit?

  3. @abhijit: You have stated the problem yourself. I'm not saying that there are NO professors here who try to do the right thing. However, the system is designed in a way so as to cause maximum hindrance to them.

    @km: Sure, if you feel so! Thanks for visiting.

  4. absolutely interesting .u have put wat i always feel ,whilst explaining concepts to my kid, in precise words.seeing the mushrooming of classes in hyd and their idea of translation of parroting into marks which they define as competition is kid keeps wondering why like other moms i am not hyper abt marks or why tennis is just as imp.i just wish people start getting the fun and thrill of understanding and applying even if it is in bits and parts !

  5. This is really interesting as I just finished re-reading "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" and went to read "The Essential Feynman" and was discussing this chapter with my husband. It really gets to the core of Science Education doesn't it.

  6. @anonymous: That competition is killing the kids today. But what is the use of studying science if we can't apply it in our day to day life? I mean topping an exam can't be someone's aim in life, right?

    @anyesha: I haven't finished that book yet, but it is absolutely amazing. And I truly felt that this chapter said in a nutshell what a science curriculum should be like, and what it should not be like. Unfortunately, we seem to be following the latter example.

  7. Sugata, I totally agree with your observations except in one point. Whatever little I have seen, from that I feel that your observation is not only valid for India, it is valid for the whole world, including Richard Feynman's USA. In fact USA is the largest proponent of the idea of number before knowledge and the "rat race". Here are the facts.

    1) US companies prefer to recruit Engineering degree holders (even from little known colleges) over the B.Sc. or M.Sc. degree holders for even mundane programming jobs.

    2) A graduate/post graduate student from Calcutta University, who invariably gets lesser marks than her peers from other Indian universities, finds it difficult to even being shortlisted for an US job.

    3) For a student who does not have an IIT/IISc degree, it is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to get chance in renowned US universities for higher studies.

    4) Recently I read somewhere that now the percentage of Indian students in most of the US universities are more than the percentage of US students.

    - Koushik

  8. hey...howzzz u??? been quite some time since we met online...:-)...anyways...will read ur entry on feynman...haven't read yet.....but just one thought struck me.... one helluva fundu guy....and the most interesting personality in physics space...anyways try if you can read his "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" hilarious physics book...I bet u would vouch for...:-)


  9. "When we are in a rat race, we are rats even if we win" . I loved the sentence.

  10. @koushik: While I agree with your observations, it is not entirely relevant here. No doubt marks are important, but not at the cost of knowledge. I haven't been to the US, so I don't know, but if Feynman is to be believed then the US education system, at least at that point of time, was better. Your other observations are also fully valid, though not directly linked to this post.
    As far as the hiring of engineers for mundane tasks is concerned, both Indian and US companies are doing it. It is something that really puzzles me, and it is a cause for concern as well. Maybe I'll write another post on this issue. You can read this old post for something related.

    @rajesh: This post is based on the very book that you refer to.

    @shreemoyee: To be entirely honest, I heard that somewhere.

  11. Thank you!

    I am really glad somebody sees eye to eye with me. I came across your blog, googling after reading a comment about Feynman in Brazil. (was it you?). After reading your blog,I must go and read his autobiography!

    I've been screaming myself hoarse for a long while about exactly this. I saw too much of "get marks" attitude as against real learning. I didn't get a great rank in Engineering entrance, was never the top scorer, and I noticed that the people on the top didnt really learn anything. It was in a way depressing!

    I attended Carnegie Mellon Univ for my masters and suddenly things changed, I topped my class repeatedly. I just fell in love with the way teachers approached course materials.

    I have ever since advocated to anyone who would care to listen that they should spend atleast a year in a US grad school, just to get a wider outlook on science, learning, and life.

  12. @anonymous: Thanks for visiting and commenting. This is indeed a very disturbing trend in Indian schools and let us hope somebody takes notice of this problem soon.
    And yes, you should definitely read that book. It is wonderful!