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Physics Problems and Fairy Tales
Just as fairy tales assist children to learn about the adult world, so problems serve the same purpose by introducing a student to physics. Problems truly do have much in common with folklore, giving the student an idea of the world of physics, how it is described, and how it can be understood. Elementary problems deal with an imaginary world of point masses, weightless threads, ideal gases, and other perfect bodies, in the same way as fairy tale worlds are populated with fierce serpents and handsome princes who travel on magic flying carpets in search of firebirds. In such a world, the powers of good and evil are distinct and moral problems are notable for their clarity and single answers. Problems also allow us to consider situations that are almost unreal or even fantastic, and hence, like fairy tales, stimulate our imagination. Step by step, more advanced problems bring us nearer to our complicated picture of the reality of scientific research, where in many cases a great deal of effort is needed even to formulate the questions and where, in the end, deeper investigation often results in an expansion of our understanding, enabling us to reinterpret our initial problem.
Of all tasks, the most important is to correctly state the problem. This proposition is valid both when a scientist is being educated and during his later career. Yet, to teach someone how to do this is the hardest of all tasks.
Sergej P. Kapitza