This week in Physics class, one of our students solved a homework problem before she had received the theoretical instruction in class. Here's the problem she solved:
A tennis player swings her 1000 g racket with a speed of 10 m/s. She hits a 60 g tennis ball that was approaching her at a speed of 20 m/s. The ball rebounds at 40 m/s.
- How fast is her racket moving immediately after the impact? You can ignore the interaction of the racket with her hand for the brief duration of the collision.
The student answered these questions in what Dr. Cort described as "a tour de force of analytical reasoning." She committed to working the problem, and she persisted in carefully thinking it through to a conclusion. This was a triumph, indeed!
- If the tennis ball and racket are in contact for 10 ms, what is the average force that the racket exerts on the ball?
In this moment, one of our Philosophical Pillars became real. That Pillar is our belief that the world is ordered and knowable. Whenever we observe something that we cannot initially understand, we continue to believe that we could understand it, if only we thought about it in the right way. This is a kind of intellectual humility that we take as an important first step in the educational process. We do not teach young people the habit of "gotcha" thinking that prevails in some academic circles, in which we despondently throw up our hands when opinions vary. When we lack understanding initially, or when disagreements arise, our first thoughts are: I must not understand properly or entirely. I may need to adjust my own thinking. We do not simply assume that a question is unanswerable or a problem unworkable. That is a path that ultimately leads to chaos and despair.