When I was in high school, I took two chemistry courses. The first was very elementary and didn't attempt to move beyond the picture of electrons, protons, and neutrons as little balls essentially. But in the second course I took (AP Chem), already confusion existed about waves vs particles and what exactly we mean by matter. And, in retrospect, I think jumping from thinking about localized particles to waves is hard because it turns out neither description is complete enough.

I recently started studying quantum field theory and I feel like quantum fields are a lot more intuitive than delving into the whole wave-particle duality hubbub. The idea that particles are excitations of a field seems far more natural because one can envision waves and particles as excitations. Anthony Zee's book Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell draws an analogy between quantum fields and mattresses. But the point is that I definitely think young people can imagine fields as easily as little balls. Yet there's a huge difference in how easily these initial intuitions allow you to navigate the physical sciences. For instance, the idea of quantum fields would naturally lead students to wonder about how classical fields work. Furthermore, for some particles, we can't define a wave function (eg photons). This becomes confusing because the wave function, at least to me, seem like the "thing" that told me how the states of a piece of elementary matter is evolving. But how can something evolve if it has no wave function?

I don't mean we have to throw out the idea of particles as little balls. The beauty of fields is that you can keep that description as a particular type of excitation. So it would complement all the tools and tricks chemists want young students to learn (eg Lewis dot structures) but give them a much clearer picture about the nature or what a particle is and ultimately I think provide a better backdrop for eventually delving deeper into the deeper questions about how quantum mechanics works exactly. This would probably help because, when they get to college, they wouldn't have to switch from an already engrained mindset. The one they would have would be more or less correct.

Maybe I am ignorant and missing something, but to me, although a bit bold, it might make more sense to introduce quantum fields earlier.


closed as primarily opinion-based by John Snow, LDC3, user467, ron, Michael DM Dryden Jan 3 '15 at 7:01

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    $\begingroup$ @StanShunpike While your belief that it's more intuitive to look at more quantitiave models and using wave equations to describe electrons, it's more to do with how current education systems are. After all, physics is usually taught last after chemistry and biology when it should be first. Additionally, the very nature of QM is unsettling and a lot goes against intuition, and such effects are not readily observeable at macroscopic levels. $\endgroup$ – Jun-Goo Kwak Jan 3 '15 at 2:21
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    $\begingroup$ @Dissenter Maybe I just have a distorted view. I had very qualified high school teachers. And college as well. I just thought it would trickle down, but if people are that sketchy about it then it definitely isn't going to happen. The weekend before, really? $\endgroup$ – Stan Shunpike Jan 3 '15 at 4:29
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    $\begingroup$ I'm a high school chemistry teacher, and I introduce the idea of electrons through the history of atomic theory (though they've all seen electrons since middle school, of course.) Electrons start as little balls (Thomson's model) but we get to them as objects that are better described by quantum mechanics. Working through the math of a simple situation (a particle in a box, for instance) doesn't do anything to improve students' understanding of the subject, and conceptually, it's difficult to do more than talk about the Uncertainty Principle and some of the other really big ideas. $\endgroup$ – Jason Patterson Jan 3 '15 at 4:53
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    $\begingroup$ @StanShunpike I would love to be able to go further into QM with my students, but even my AP Chem kids just don't have the math (or time) to do any of it numerically. That said, you can't really discuss something like an electron orbital without referencing QM to some degree. I would be sorely disappointed if my students left my class thinking that electrons were actually little balls. $\endgroup$ – Jason Patterson Jan 3 '15 at 8:58
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    $\begingroup$ One of my little projects is to offer visualization of orbitals and electron density as volumetric clouds instead of surfaces, e.g. davidlonie.blogspot.com/2011/07/… The benefit is that it's self consistent with QM but conceptually easier than going through all the math. The challenge as others have mentioned is that high school and even college instructors don't always keep up on improved educational techniques. $\endgroup$ – Geoff Hutchison Jan 3 '15 at 17:28

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