Not All Nerds

Re: “The Way of Dr. Tae: This disillusioned physics professor couldn’t fix the education system—so he fixed a Tony Hawk video game instead” by Ryan Smith, November 11

I really enjoyed your article about Dr. Tae, the skateboarding physicist who went on the help redesign a successful video game. I have to take issue, however, with the portrayal of the academic physics world that Dr. Tae got so frustrated with. Dr. Tae’s experiences are certainly his own so I can’t comment on them—but to portray him as one rogue going up against the stodgy world of academic physics is ultimately cartoonish and facile.

In fact, I would say that the majority of young physicists at the university level do not fit into the mold of what the media portrays as the “typical geek.” I can say this with confidence as I am a member of the physics faculty at Northwestern (where Dr. Tae taught briefly and I should note that I did not overlap with him) and I skateboard, snowboard, have tattoos, etc etc. I have a colleague who lived on the streets for several years fighting drug addiction before finishing his PhD in astrophysics and going on to become a successful researcher. My TA for a course I’m currently teaching is a veteran marine who served his country in battle before becoming a physicist. Others are musicians or artists in their spare time. My point is not to say: “Hey look we’re cool too!”, it’s the following: we also see science (in particular physics and math) education as problematic—but we work within the system to change the things that we disagree with for the greater good.

Now I have no idea why Dr. Tae left academia. I can imagine he just decided he wanted to do something else with his time and there is nothing wrong with this. But the idea that your story gives is that he left because he saw no way to change to system so why even bother trying? Not only is that totally inaccurate, but it’s a horrible message to send to people. Modern universities enthusiastically encourage the type of outside the box teaching that you talk about Dr. Tae using in your article. Especially an institute like Northwestern that emphasizes student/faculty interaction. But guess what: teaching science is @$#^% HARD! It takes long hours, lots of effort on the part of the instructor and student alike, and no success is guaranteed.

The reality of the situation is that there is a tremendous amount of effort from countless individuals to try and restructure the classical system of science education—go to the AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) website and poke around. Go to their conference the next time it is near Chicago. You will not only find a multitude of people working to change the face of physics education—but (GASP!) most of them won’t be wearing pocket protectors and taped together glasses.

I’m glad Dr. Tae found his true calling working in video games and it’s a pity that academic physics wasn’t able to retain his services. However, there are many of us out there trying to change the academic system working from within to make it a more attractive and functional place for the most creative minds of tomorrow. I’d rather go skateboarding too! But, like a lot of my colleagues, I’ve got students to teach. —Dr. Andrew Smith