Gravity, imagination and embodied concepts of spacetime
Magdalena Kersting, Physics
Though we live in a four-dimensional universe, our minds and bodies are not particularly good at perceiving and depicting four dimensions. 100 years ago Albert Einstein revolutionised our understanding of the world when he interpreted gravity as a feature of curved spacetime. In our work, we use video observations from high school physics students that study Einstein’s general theory of relativity as a setting to identify conceptual challenges that arise when learners attempt to make meaning with, and express conflicting notions of, gravity, space and time. Specifically, this research contributes to our understanding of imaginative strategies that students employ to make sense of gravity when bodily and experiential understandings conflict with the conceptual domain. Building on theoretical perspectives that treat imagining as a social activity, we carry out a detailed analysis of a conversation between two physics students working with concepts of gravity. We demonstrate that students perform a diverse set of imaginative strategies that are strongly tied to cognitive, communicative, and bodily practices when trying to relate abstract descriptions of curved spacetime to their everyday experience of gravity. Based on our analysis, we give recommendations to improve instructional practices in general relativity and argue for the consideration of imagining as an important competency in science education.