Jeremy Côté



Through my two years in a CÉGEP science program, I learned an important lesson about the nature of my education. The simple truth is that it’s possible to go through the program without any intuition.

Said differently: one could pass by only relying on being skilled in mathematics. The nature of a science education revolves around three components: assignments, labs, and exams. As a result, everything that is marked in a science class revolves around getting the logic (usually, in the form of mathematics) right. As long as one is well-versed in mathematics, it is possible to do well in a science course.

How did I see this? Mainly, it occurred when I saw people who were uninterested in a subject1. The way it’s expressed in physics is through a lack of interest in an intuitive answer.

In a nutshell, intuition is about working out an answer to a question by observing how phenomena work. This means little to no mathematics is involved. A common phrase you will hear physicists or teachers say is, “Let’s try to get a feel for this problem.” Obviously, they aren’t trying to literally touch the problem. Instead, it’s about reasoning why the mathematics work based on what we can observe.

One of the classical examples in mechanics (the study of forces on physical objects) is how friction works. Mathematically, it can be described as the force that opposes the motion of layer moves against another layer. And, if you were to take an exam, you could get everything right about friction.

However, what if I explained friction with intuition? Consider a person walking. It’s fairly easy to visualize how each step creates a certain amount of force that translates into movement. But now imagine the same situation of walking, but on a smooth sheet of ice. Would the two experiences be the same?

Of course not, and that is precisely the purpose of friction. Even better, imagine an ice sport, such as hockey or curling, played on concrete. The sports would never be able to play in the same manner, and it’s completely due to friction (or rather, the lack of friction).

This is the sense of intuition I’m talking about. It’s not a radical new way of solving a physics problem. Instead, the goal is to give a person a sense of context or grounding in a situation before trying to tackle it.

The reality is that many physics problems can become mathematical beasts to solve. When this happens, it’s easy to distance oneself from what is actually happening. However, we need to realize that, while we use mathematics as our tool of analysis, the situations we are looking at are physical situations. Consequently, there is usually some way to illustrate the problem in an intuitive way.

As one goes further and further into physics, there are problems that don’t have direct physical situations that can be easily thought of (such as a puck sliding on ice). However, this does not mean that intuition is completely lost. Instead, it is found by creating mental models of the situations. For example, we know that atoms inside of a metal don’t physically move when electricity is passed through it, yet we still talk about the “movement” of positive charges (even going so far as to say that they have a certain drift velocity). Why do we do this?

The simple answer is that having an intuition helps us fully understand a problem. Intuition and mental models allow us to take a problem that is abstract (or made abstract by mathematics), and bring it back down for us to get a physical sense for what is happening.

It’s quite possible to get through a science program without paying much attention to intuition. However, ignoring your intuition and only focusing on the mathematics is a way to lose a good portion of your science education. By always looking for an intuitive answer, you’re seeking an answer that does not only make mathematical sense, but also physical sense. This is a key distinction which will separate those who do well and those who truly understand a science subject (particularly physics).

Plus, it helps you see patterns in the way our universe works. Having an intuition means your brain is telling you, “I’ve seen something like this before, and this is what ends up happening.” As a result, you become better at having a fully rounded understanding of a subject, instead of just the mathematical aspect to it.

Therefore, always seek the intuitive explanation to a situation2. It will aid you in understanding the processes behind the situation.

  1. I am not immune to this behaviour. While I enjoy learning any kind of science, there are definitely those that I look at with less interest (biology, chemistry) than I do with physics. 

  2. I can appreciate that not all situations have an intuitive answer, but since most do, I think it’s a good thing to search for.