I A Natural I in Physics Philosophy Course and Chemistry

Columbia University in the Spring of 1969. Philosophy Course and Chemistry inated by scientific technology the educated citizen needs to grasp the met...
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Harold G. Cassidy Yale Universitv New Haven, Connecticut


A Natural Philosophy Course in Physics and Chemistry

This is the description of a course, developed over a period of eight years a t Yale University (1) and taught last year on an experimental basis a t Wesleyan University. Its objective is to engage the interest of students in the humanities area: students who are "not interested in science," as well as students who are "anti-science." The purpose is to desensitize them and to lead them to learn that modern science is accessible to their intellects, and that they can learn enough substantive science to sense its excitement, promise, and dangers; to bring them to the height of the times (in Ortega's phrase). The course is based on axioms that are restated and made explicit throughout the year. With reference primarily to the student the more important of these are: that there is no difference in mental power, subtlety of reasoning ability, ambition to work, creativity, and integrity, between science students and humanly corresponding humanities majors, but that among both a range of intensity and quality of these attributes is found; that in a world increasingly domA textbook for this course should be rwrtilsble in about onehalf year from Freeman, Cooper & Co., San Francisco. An "Essay on Education" will be bublished by Teachers College Press, Columbia University in the Spring of 1969.

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inated by scientific technology the educated citizen needs to grasp the methods of thinking that lie a t the basis of this technology; that the humanist who gains some grasp of science may find open to him otherwise unavailable sources of inspiration for his humanistic enterprises. With reference primarily to the subject the most important axioms are: that meaning inheres in organized connectedness such as is shown in a particularly clear way in physics and chemistry in the vast nexus of laws and theories; that the development of the student as a person whose education is well begun requires the integration of cognition, emotion, and action in all his courses and between them. The course in Natural Philosophy, with its presently vestigial laboratory, emphasizes the union of all three. Method

Throughout the course everything is kept as open and visible as possible. I point out that there is so much we need to cover that the utmost clarity is needed, and we cannot afford the esoteric in-group approach, or the "gee-whiz" stinks and bangs entertainment approach. (They generally get the idea that I believe them to he worth treating as adults.) For example, a t the very beginning I place the course in the context of the whole

University (2, 5). Then throughout the course I try, through casual, passing comments, not to belabor and yet to suggest what I want to become a mode of thought: the connections, implications, possibilities relevant to the student's present courses and his immediate concerns. That is, in the last few minutes of the appropriate class session I might refer to the effects of Galileo's work as they appear in the content and idiom of subsequent literature (4, 6); or the intemperate reactions of Blake (6),or Goethe (7) to Newton's work; or the possible sources of inspiration in Einstein's work (8). The idea is to show the relevance of science t o other areas of activity, and to give something familiar for them to discuss on the way t o the next class. None of these asides is ever allowed to overwhelm the substance of the class work. When we take up m a t h e m a t i c ~ a n dmany of the students have high math aptitude scores and low math ability (some of them were bitten by an inept math teacher in high school and hate the subject; others are temperamentally disinclined)-I ask them to look a t other students they know. "Inquire of yourselves," I say, "whether they are intrinsically brighter than you are." I suggest that mathematics is a special kind of language designed to keep them from becoming confused and making errors as they pursue long chains of reasoning. I return to this theme often, and may recall to them, for example, the use of set theory and Venn diagrams in modern teaching of grammar. Every examination is gone over in detail afterwards. I discuss what the questions were designed to elicit; why they were given the weighting, and how I graded the test. The student thus comes to see the anatomy of the course from this point of view, as well as the difficulties I have in designing tests. I do finally convince the more perceptive ones that the test has value to them, too, to show how they are coming along in comprehension. Because of the continued attempt t o connect the intellectual processes as we pursue them with similar processes in other courses or areas of the University, I frequently talk out of my field. I therefore establish a convention early in the course. When I am behind the lecture desk I am talking about things I am an expert on, and I expect them to he responsible for all such material on the examinations; when I walk out in front of the desk I am talking as a layman, and will discuss any subject even from little substantive knowledge. This convention is greatly appreciated by the students. It helps to keep things open and honest. If I discuss (in the last few minutes of a period) the "feeling is all" at,titude of many students, show its existential roots and basic poverty, I would he out in front of the lecture table. I rely a good deal on demonstrations, carefully performed by me, and usually as utterly simple and physically exposed as possible. I try in this way to introduce concepts operationally (perception + construct, see next section). I willingly sacrifice quantitative accuracy in order to obtain qualitative lucidity and credibility. Of course some demonstrations cannot be simple; however I try to avoid black boxes as much as possible. This is part of the att,empt to keep everything open.


The course is divided into several internally comsistent parts. The first consists of several lectures that place the course in context in the intellectual structure of the University (2, 5). Also I present enough epistemological scaffolding, based largely on Henry Margenan (9) to support the structure of the later work: we constantly and explicitly move between perceptions and constructs. During this introductory part and in the second part, I use a number of devices to lead the student imperceptibly into mathematics, playing on his (usually) high verbal aptitude, and using geometry (e.g., vectors) very freely, especially where it naturally and commonly is used, as in presenting Newton's laws and circular and periodic motion. I have been successful in getting an understanding of function and in introducing t,he frequent use of calculus. The second part is one that we go through carefully. I t consists of a highly selective review of R'ewton's laws, circular and periodic motion, and elect,rostatics and electrodynamics. I t is surprising how much conventional classical physics may be left out and still retain enolfgh necessary background to support the modern approach. At the, same time this irreducible minimum must he grasped by those students without physics, and reviewed by those who had even a good course several years gone. At this point perhaps eight weeks have passed, or nine. The t,hird part is primarily devoted to the three great theories which opened the modern era: special relativity, quantum ideas, and photoelectric theory. Special relativity is treated in considerable detail, for it proves fascinating. Especially so is the student's "discovery" that what is really done is to find an invariant by means of which phenomena in one frame of reference may be coded into another, moving relative to it a t constant velocity. Emphasis here is also given to the far-reaching conclusions drawn from a set of a few axioms. Relativistic interpretation of a flowing current gives an immediate use for some of these notions, and leads to an elementary discussion of electromagnetic radiation. Quantum interpretations follow in a natural way, as also what many students find the high point of the first semest,er, photoelectric phenomena. Part four comprises a modern view of matter. We cannot in an introductory course of this kind afford to discuss history; howevcr on a reserve shelf in the library I provide a number of suitable boolis. After several trials with different classes, I seem to find that atomic structurc and properties should precede nuclear. Both are treated very selectively and in some depth. Thus the concept of energy levels in both treatments (what does it matter if we do not mention other approaches?) ties closely to photoelectric phenomena. Nuclear reactions support relativity. Following atomic and nuclear properties we take up molecular properties, and devote whatever time is available to a very selective treatment of elementary organic chemistry, dealing only with functional groups that can be useful in discussing polymers, and ultimately, proteins. The last part of the course, which I consider important enough that some molecular structure can be sacrificed to it, consists of a review of essential prinVolume 46, Number 2, Februory 1969



ciples at a high level of abstraction: conservation laws; particles and fields (which recalls gravitation and electrostatics); symmetries and laws. In this section I unify the course explicitly and relate it to familiar matters by teaching some probability and statistics, and by using a cybernetic approach, showing how it applies throughout physics and chemistry even though not much used because we have good ways of saying the same things. Philosophy

At the risk of some repetition, the guiding philosophy of this course is that we must develop a scientifically literate laity. These students will enter government service, or business; they will vote; they will make policy; they will hire scientists. If they fear science, thinking that it is evil because it has been used for evil purposes, and not realizing that the fruits of any intellectual endeavor may be put to evil purposes (think of the use of the fine arts and literature for destructive propaganda, purveying of lies, pornography), or if they think that science is a kind of higher witchcraft the practitioners of which are of a different moral order, then our country will suffer from their ignorance. But if they understand, to a sufficient extent substantively in one or two areas so that their philosophic understanding is supported, that science is neither good nor evil, hut may be used for good or evil purposes by people, then they are given hope and power

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to act. The applications of science that carry theory into the realm of moral decisions are often discussedin front of the lecture table, hut as rationally as possible. I hope that many students will realize that they could be scientists if they wanted to, and were temperamentally so inclined. I urge them to take a course in another area of science, and I gently urge them to carry what they have learned with them into their other courses and deeply into their own thoughts and feelings and actions. Literature Cited (1) CA~SIDY, H. G., Yale Alumni Magazine, February 1965, pp. 12-15. (2) CASSIDY, H. G., American Scimtist, 51, 315-26 (1963). (3) CASSIDY,H. G., "The Sciences and The Arts. A New

Alliance," Harper & Row Publishers, Inc., New York, 1962. (4) NICOLSON, M. H., Modem Philology, 32, 233 (1935); Studies in Philology, 32, 428 (1936); ELH, A Journal of Engliah Litemry Histmy, 2 , 1 (1935); Smilh College Studies in Modem Languages, 16, No. 4 (193.51, 17, No. 2 (1936). (5) NICOLSON, M. H., "The Breaking of the Circle," Columbia Paperback, Columbia Universitv Press, New York. 1960. pp: 62, 65.' (6) NICOLSON, M . H., "Newton Demands the Muse." (7) SHERRINQTON, SIR CHARLES, "Goethe on Nature and on Science,".Cambridge University Press, London, 1942. (8) Arehibald MacLeish wrote a long poem "Einstein" in 192Y. (9) MARGI,;NIU, H., "The Nature of Physical Reality: A Philos-

ophy of Modern Physics," McGraw-Hill Rook Co., Inc., New Yark, 1950.