Love, betrayal, and physics: “Everything goes better with narrative”

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It’s not true to say that all teaching’s better with stories – but there’s enough truth in this exaggeration that I feel like saying it anyhow, and I hope that even TOK teachers will forgive me my hyperbole. Stories can catch student interest, illustrate points, and open up lots of questions. I’ve just read one I like for TOK and wanted to pass it on to you. Read it, enjoy it – and bookmark it for future use!

Before you get your hopes up for a crime drama or a racy romance, I must concede that stories useful for Theory of Knowledge rarely contain these elements – though they often do contain mesmerizing mysteries. The title of the one I suggest today invites curiosity about love and betrayal: “Why I left physics for economics”. Its subtitle piques interest in human motivation and the flight from excessive order: “I recently decided to abandon the rules that govern nature for the rules that govern people and markets: economics. Why would I do such a thing?”

I suggest that this personal testimony from physicist and economist Arthur Turrell provides a light way to treat comparisons between the natural sciences and the human sciences. Even questions on basic comprehension of his article lead to characteristics of the two areas of knowledge:

  • Why does Turrell love physics?
  • When he was initially drawn to economics, why did he resist? Why did he even start to think about abandoning his first love?
  • As he “develops feelings for economics”, what attracts him?
  • Toward the end, he defends being unfaithful to physics and even suggests that being “interdisciplinary” and “collaborative” is good for both the subjects he has loved. Does he give any reasons that you find convincing?

Comprehension questions on a story are no more than a means, of course, toward broader knowledge questions, as the individual example can be used to illustrate a collective experience.

As we draw comparisons between the natural sciences and the human sciences in TOK, personal stories like this one can help ground the broad generalizations we make about areas of knowledge. Moreover, they can keep in the forefront of our discussion with students an essential feature of knowledge: that it is a human enterprise, undertaken in social context, and driven in large part by the curiosity and excitement of real people with names and narratives.


Arthur Turrell, “Why I left physics for economics”, The Guardian science blog, June 22, 2017.

image from creative commons, Pixabay.