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At the Summer 2011 meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers I re-introduced the word 'physicism' to raise the question whether we should have some sort of social bent across physics education, pointing to the analogous 'environmentalism' common among those studying and teaching environmental science. See A broad look at the energy curriculum.

Why identify physicism?

If Michael Faraday is to be the prototype, and we use his written example, physicists need only be "lovers of natural knowledge."(1845:¶2146) But there's more than mere philosophy-seeking that leads people to the field. Other fields have somewhat clearer purposes. Many people study natural resources because they enjoy the idea of saving species, providing a good environment for future generations, and examining people's role in a wider ecology. Some people study poetry because the medium manipulates their emotions musically.

Among most social groups, physics is not a popular subject. If it were removed from the secondary school curriculum, it might suffer drastic diminishment in the tertiary. In interviews physicists have told me they love the pursuit of simple principles on which widely varied phenomena depend. Non-physicists have mostly told me that they chose not to pursue such a difficult subject. However, Sheila Tobias found that the choice not to pursue science like physics is not related to difficulty, so there must be something loathsome about physics besides its difficulty.<bibref>Tobias:1990Theyre-not-dumbAA</bibref> Or a lack of lovability. If we can find what's loathsome or lovable about physics, we might be able to manipulate that thing, or measure it in various subfields, for pedagogical or political gain.

Other isms that inform us


I have overgeneralized environmental scientists as all being environmentalists, including in their teaching. There are strands of environmental science pedagogy that eschew activism, rather embracing appreciation and scientific knowledge for its own sake. Workers in these strands might be called 'naturalists' rather than environmentalists.

Perhaps that subtlety could be informative to our consideration of physicism. There might be one subset of physicists who espouse physicism living peacefully with another subset who don't care for activism in their field, both sharing an appreciation for the science itself.

The strong interplay between political environmentalism and environmental science shapes the study of environmental science, and gives the science baggage that sometimes causes selection, exaggeration, or simplification of found associations between political action and environmental metrics. See Tim Forsyth's 2003 book Critical Political Ecology: the politics of environmental science, chapter 5.

Environmentalism may be considered a movement to protect nature from degradation.


That the world should be seen through rational lenses, and that the world is mechanistic, isn't a fruitful way to look at the pursuit of physics. If it isn't appropriate for the study of physicists, it probably isn't appropriate for the pedagogy of physics.

So what might physicism be?

1800s physicism

See #Genitors of physicism.

  • Laws govern the universe
  • There is unity between, simplicity in those laws.

The crises of early modern physics, culminating in general relativity and quantum mechanics, so befuddling to so many professors of classical physics, erased the simplicity and unity argument. The refined argument for physics remained, though, that the world could be understood, but now only by the priesthood. Did this anti-pedagogical turn send physicism from the official curriculum into hiding?

Has it a gendered bent?

See Evelyn Fox Keller's history of enlightenment natural philosophy:“Baconian Science: A Hermaphroditic Birth,” Philosophical Forum, 1980, 12:299 –308.

A social bent

What are the social goals involved in the pursuit of physics?

A philosophy compatible with the practice

A philosophy compatible with the practice of physics could mean one that calls on society to support physics. It could be a meritocracy that pushes out weaklings and amplifies successes. It could be either supporting physicists from a distance because they seem like they know what they're doing, or, conversely, understanding the power of what they're doing so supporting them.

A function in society

If environmentalism may be considered a movement to protect nature from degradation, is there a parallel for physicism? I can't see there being a physicism to protect anything from anything, but I know energy physicists who want to provide energy resources for the use of humanity. So perhaps physicism could be a movement to harness physical interactions for human use?


Considering an ideology being the ideas and manners characteristic of a group, could seperate groups of physicists have diverse physicisms? There might be differences among language-groups, students of different schools, and students in different fields of physics.

This is important to consider, because an ascendant subgroup might gather power to determine the aggregate physicism. If physicism seems to the populace to include an inclination to explode things, mess with subatomic energies, and destroy the atmosphere, then the public might distrust the entire venture, not just the weapons physicists. I saw it coming from a mile away when I introduced my chemistry course to my high school students and one asked "When are we going to blow something up?"

Which physicists embrace physicism?

Genitors of physicism

Who creates the memes of physician, and who popularizes them? We should not only look to famous physicists, but everyday teachers, although the famous have weighty sway over the mundane catchphrases, found in books and conference proceedings.

Michael Faraday (1833:¶266.) cited "strictness of reasoning" as driving physicist Sir H. Davy and himself to address doubts about the multiple natures of electrical phenomena. Physicists can be clear about what physics means to themselves, but their meaning has less appeal to lay people. Has any physicist appealed to the general population with an attitude that can be attributed to physics, rather than to their personal approach to the subject from without?

Faraday later (1837:¶1162.) expressed the strong movement towards unity of forces and its aaplication to explaining not only laboratory phenomena but "living beings":

Amongst the actions of different kinds into which electricity has conventionally been subdivided, there is, I think, none which excels, or even equals in importance that called Induction. It is of the most general influence in electrical phenomena, appearing to be concerned in every one of them, and has in reality the character of a first, essential, and fundamental principle. Its comprehension is so important, that I think we cannot proceed much further in the investigation of the laws of electricity without a more thorough understanding of its nature; how otherwise can we hope to comprehend the harmony and even unity of action which doubtless governs electrical excitement by friction, by chemical means, by heat, by magnetic influence, by evaporation, and even by the living being?

Consumers of physicism

What is the de facto social bent of physics, if it has one?

The philosophy of physics follows certain well-worn channels in the indoctrination of students. Evidence includes the tautology "you cannot break the laws of physics" and the widespread concept that physics "is the base" of chemistry, which in turn is the base of biology, which is in turn the base of all things human.

One tacit assumption common in physics education for non-physicists and pre-specialists, to much greater degree than in other fields, is that there is a set of knowledge and skills, the canon, which must be visited before the gates to the rest of physics can be opened. This leads to an atmosphere of fraternity, including the selectivity and shaming associated with exclusive clubs. So, de facto physicism includes a sense of privileged expertise.

See How is physicism explained in physics textbooks?

Physics underlies everything in the universe, therefore studying it is more important than anything

The problematic idea that an understanding of dynamics and mechanics is prerequisite to understanding nature has been an apology for introductory physics since the beginnings of the modern field. In William Thomson's introductory lectures, he stated "before any considerable progress can be made in a philosophical study of nature a thorough knowledge of dynamical principles is absolutely necessary." (From "Introductory Lecture to the Course on Natural Philosophy," 1862, as printed on p.241 of Sylvanus P. Thompson's The Life of William Thomson v.1, 1910.) There are many derivative proverbs, including the umpteen like "If it weren't for x, the universe wouldn't exist," followed by an attempt to convince someone that x is the only appropriate thing to study before anything else in the universe.

While appealing to insiders, this attitude about the fundamentality of physics may be viewed as pure, unnecessary hubris by outsiders. Can we rescue physics from this self-importance with some other synthesis of social relevance and power of principles?


Dear, Peter. The Intelligibility of Nature.
Kaiser, David. How the Hippies Saved Physics.
Olesko, Kathryn M. Physics as a Calling.

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