Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Physics v Economics

So now I'm taking this college-level mechanics and relativity class, Physics 15a, to fulfill a Science core requirement. Most of the analytical techniques that we've touched on so far (eg, taking derivatives and integrals) are familiar to me. But the dang-blasted TRIGONOMETRY is so horrible! I really don't like trying to figure out which vector element gets sin(\theta) and which gets cos...so usually I guess. I've memorized that if you're shooting a projectile, then sin goes up, cos goes sideways. But then they change it up on you with inclined planes.

There are two important comparisons between first-year econ and first-year physics, in my mind. The first is that the Physics department, in its infinite wisdom, actually sees fit to offer a wide array of classes intended for freshmen. You can take a class that doesn't require calculus, and you can take a super-hardcore class that teaches you more math than you've ever learned, even though you need analysis just to take it. Economics? You're either taking Social Analysis 10, or you're a super-genius taking Ed Glaeser's scary class. There should be a math-intensive introduction to economics. Plain and simple.

The second is experiments. The inability to gather most data experimentally is of course one of the things that makes empirical economics so hard. In physics, my lecturer can illustrate every point he makes with a simple and incontrovertible demonstration. Take the following example: the lecturer intended to illustrate the point that, if you aim a cannon at a monkey, and then monkey starts falling the instant you shoot the cannon, then the ball and monkey will collide somewhere along the monkey's downward path.

So what did he do? He attached a stuffed Curious George with a magnet on its head to a rather large crane, raised the crane to about 30 feet off the ground, aimed his cannon at the monkey using a laser-guided sight, informed us that the cannon was designed to release the monkey the instant the ball left the muzzle, and shot the damn thing. There was a serious and legitimate collision between the metal shot and the monkey's bullet-proof vest. Clapping ensued.

Contrast this to economics, where, in Ec 10, the most exciting thing that happened in any given Feldstein lecture (I have not seen Mankiw's lectures) was Marty's writing on his ancient overhead projector slides with a new colour of sharpie. However, to be fair, credit is due to the makers of Ec 10 for not giving up and going Michael Sandel "Justice"-style, encouraging every mindless windbag at Harvard to declare his own personal opinion by microphone for the benefit of the other 999 people in the class.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Having majored and gone to grad school in another field, then gone to grad school in economics, it has always been remarkable to me what AWFUL teachers economists are, as a rule. It's really like they just don't care if their students don't understand or aren't interested. Why is that? The same incentives for research over teaching exist in other fields, yet many of them, like physics, have much more of a culture of good teaching.