I reflect on this often, but I keep coming back to the same conclusion: mathematics, or physics, or any other science is not as difficult as people make it out to be. When non-science people roll their eyes as I tell them that the ideas I’m working with aren’t that difficult, I’m not just trying to be modest and say I’m not smart. That’s not the point. Instead, what I want to convey to them is the idea that mathematics and physics is like any other field. By working hard to understand what you are doing, you can become great at these subjects. It doesn’t take some innate ability to be good at physics or mathematics. It just requires patience and determination.
This is why it breaks my heart when I see those who struggle with mathematics or physics and act as if they will never be able to “fully” get it. To make matters worse, the subject becomes nearly an enemy to them, something that they’re doing the most they can to finish but then completely discard.
I think the main issue is one of traction. Too often I see young students being divided up into those who are “good” and those who aren’t. It’s frustrating to me because I know that these challenges will not last forever. But what happens is that they do end up persisting, simply because the student doesn’t “get” those first concepts as quickly. I’ve begun to wonder: how many people who proclaim to be bad at mathematics simply haven’t given themselves (nor have others) enough of a chance to really understand the subject?
If we want more people to be excited about mathematics and science, we cannot keep up this illusion of someone being “better” than the other. This may be true in the long run of someone’s career, but it isn’t a useful way of describing students when they are young and most prone to being shaped for life. If we start sending the message that learning mathematics and science is about gaining traction, than I think we can get more people into these fields. Once you’re off and running, the subjects aren’t quite as intimidating as they may have seemed.