One physicist’s journey from student to scientist (and how video helped him get there)

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The TED-Ed initiative is fueled by the power of short, educational videos. That’s why we were so excited when we found out that Theoretical Elementary Particle Physics Ph.D. (and all around science rock star) Joshua Samani was inspired to fully pursue his complex, intimidating line of study after having his mind blown by a short, animated educational video he saw in his high school physics class.

We caught up with Joshua to talk about this epiphanic experience, how it has affected his own teaching pedagogy and why people are so darn scared of physics.

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Joshua Samani

Tell us about this video that you watched in high school.

This is a story that is very vivid to me because it really had a significant and pointed impact very immediately. I was in an AP Physics course in high school, and our teacher at the time showed us this video on something called the Twin Paradox, which is a thought experiment in special relativity. Basically, in the Twin Paradox, two twins are separated at birth. One of those twins goes off on a spaceship and goes very fast to some distant place, turns around and comes back to Earth. And what special relativity predicts is that one of the twins — the twin that went on this journey — will be younger than the other one. So, when they meet back up, they’ll see that the one who left will have aged less than the other.

So, I don’t know about you, but I had always thought that the idea of time travel, or people aging at different rates, was completely science fiction — but it turns out that it’s totally real. It just completely blew my mind and I actually ended up going home after school and I remember walking into my house and seeing my dad and immediately going up to him and saying, “You know, Dad? I just realized that if I could just understand this one thing I learned today, then I would be happy.” So, I actually ended up going to Barnes and Noble immediately after school, buying a book on relativity and reading the whole book that night.

After reading that book, did you feel like you understood the Twin Paradox?

Actually, no. When I read the book, all it did was really open up a huge number of other questions, the answers to which I didn’t have or couldn’t understand. And I spent my entire senior year in my spare time between classes, reading lecture notes on special relativity that I found online, just to try to understand this stuff. And eventually, I studied physics, and now I do understand it, but it was a really exciting thing for me.

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A still image from “The Twin Paradox”

How do you think these kinds of difficult concepts in physics can be made accessible to a wider audience?

Well, this is one of the things that attracts me most to things like TED-Ed. Because one thing I think is important is that when concepts are really difficult, it helps a lot to think very hard for a very long time about how you’re going to explain that concept and package it in such a way that it’s optimally presented. And, at least to my mind, that’s what TED-Ed is doing. And the fact that the videos have such good production and are short but nonetheless have a lot of detail in them — all these things I think lead to being able to describe very difficult concepts to people who don’t necessarily have expertise.

A little more on my philosophy on that: I think, in my experience of teaching physics for the past six years, people don’t really give themselves enough credit for being able to learn difficult things, especially when they are mathematical or physics oriented. And I really believe that has nothing to do with their abilities whatsoever. Most of it is personal perception; some of it is motivation or a lack of motivation; some of it is people telling them that they can’t learn it, or they feel like there is some sort of implicit message to them from someone that they can’t learn it. So, I don’t really know how that barrier could be broken down, but I do truly believe that learning physics isn’t so much a matter of ability. It’s more a matter of desire and being presented the material in such a way that it’s less intimidating. Because let’s face it — if you talk to a random person, and I tell them that I’m a physics PhD, the first thing people will tell me is, “Oh, I hated physics. That was a subject I never understood.” Or “I could never understand that.” Or “I don’t even know how you could possibly do that.” But I think the majority of those people would actually really enjoy physics if they were exposed to in a different way than they’re used to.

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Joshua Samani

Did the Twin Paradox video in high school function in that way for you personally?

Yeah. I do think that video influenced me in that way. Admittedly, I was already really interested in the sciences and math, but I did nonetheless have some self-doubt as a high school student. I wasn’t really sure if I was cut out to go into something as difficult as math, even though I was really interested in it, and I always did pretty well. I did look around at my peers and think, “There are so many really smart people. Am I really cut out for this?” But you know, I think what that video did for me was, despite my doubts about my personal abilities, I sort of just forgot about all of those because I got so inspired that I didn’t really care what the outcome was. I just wanted to learn it.

Check out the lesson Joshua created around the Twin Paradox video he saw in high school. >>
Has a video ever changed your life? Join the conversation on the TED-Ed Community page. >>

1 Comment

  1. Nalani Zorola

    I have found from my personal experiance that what Joshua said IS TRUE. I did not undersatnd math in high school. I had “math anxiety”. After high school I got my start in manufacturing in the aerospace industry. I remember telling my abusive ex-husband that ,”I was a machinist”. Because I am a woman and there were almost no women “machinsts” at that time, he became instantly angry! He proceeded to put me down in every way imaginable, and literally beat the idea out of my mind and body that I was, or ever would be “a machinist.” Because of that I became a machinist, excelled at math & machining, & have been a macnhinist for over 35 years!

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