A Visceral Hinterland in Physics

Da Vinci Man Right Arm And Shoulder Anatomy By Da Vinci

Underneath it all, physicists think with their bodies. They know what it feels like. Einstein described his approach to problem-solving as “muscular” (here – p143).  Feynman describes a tutorial with an undergraduate who couldn’t work out where to push down on a three-legged circular table to make it flip:

“There’s a round table on three legs. Where should you lean on it, so the table will be the most unstable?”

The student’s solution was, “Probably on top of one of the legs, but let me see: I’ll calculate how much force will produce what lift, and so on, at different places.”

Then I said, “Never mind calculating. Can you imagine a real table?”

“But that’s not the way you’re supposed to do it!”

“Never mind how you’re supposed to do it; you’ve got a real table here with the various legs, you see? Now, where do you think you’d lean? What would happen if you pushed down directly over a leg?”


I say, “That’s right; and what happens if you push down near the edge, halfway between two of the legs?”

“It flips over!”

I say, “OK! That’s better!”

Feynman’s Tips on Physics p73

You need the experience of pushing on a three-legged table to really understand the problem.

A nice piece of research shows that visceral experience, rather than simply watching, makes a difference to learning and applying new concepts. Kontra, Lyons, Fischer and Beilock (2015) carried out an investigation teaching non-physics undergraduates about angular momentum using spinning wheels.

visceral physics (3)
Kontra, Lyons, Fischer and Beilock (2015)

Providing physical, visceral experience of a phenomena leads to substantially and significantly better performance. The experience of physical sensations learners bring is likely to impact on physics learning. Forces, collisions and motion are obvious playground experiences, but fields, rates of flow and energy can also be physically experienced. They form a visceral hinterland.

Maths teachers use bead strings and blocks – concrete examples. For physics, I prefer the word ‘visceral’. Concrete is external. Physics is of the body.


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