Monday, March 12, 2007

Is Physics a Liberal Art?

At Bennington College there is a wonderful, Oxbridge-esque tradition called the Tuesday Night Supper Club. Three or four times a semester, on a series of Tuesday nights, fifteen or twenty faculty members choose to stay on campus after a long day of teaching. At five-thirty in the evening (evenings start early in Vermont) everyone gathers in a small dining room in Commons. The room is part of the students' dining hall during the day, but on Supper Club nights the swinging doors are kept closed, and the evening is dressed up with wine and tablecloths. Faculty members sneak back from the foodservice line with plates full of food, trying to avoid their students' questions about the assignment due tomorrow. Before long people are filtering back and forth for coffee and dessert, and the chosen speaker walks to the front of the room to address his or her colleagues.

Usually these presentations are a way for the faculty to get to know one another's research. But when I was invited to give a presentation at the Supper Club last fall, frankly I despaired of talking about my research. My audience, I knew, would consist almost entirely of artists, writers, and performers. Not only no physicists, but no physical scientists at all. Why in the world would I go in front of this audience with a specialist's colloquium of the type that I might give to a physics department?

But if I wasn't going to talk about my latest paper, or my next paper, then what was I going to talk about?

Finally I decided to do something along different lines. The title of my presentation was "Is Physics a Liberal Art?"

I thought of this lecture earlier tonight, when a friend had this to say about my earlier post on the place of Newton's Laws in the physics curriculum: "As you hint at, a lot of this comes down to why students should learn intro physics (or calculus) in the first place. So much of our curriculum requirements are in place simply for historical, departmental turf-protecting reasons. So: why should the liberal arts student need to learn physics at all?" Not long ago, an iconoclastic computer scientist at Bennington asked me a similar question: "Why does a liberal arts college even need a physicist?" (It was a friendly question, although that fact is somewhat hard to convey here!)

Despite the title of today's post (and despite the neater-than-it-should-have-been conclusion to my talk, an ending which I felt driven to by the requirements of the genre) I don't claim to have the answer to these questions. But in light of my friend's comments, I thought I'd share the presentation.

Here is a link to the lecture in Word document format: "Is Physics a Liberal Art?". The Word document contains the images used in the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied my lecture, but if you want better images, then the PowerPoint file itself is also available here: TNSCPresentation-02.ppt.


By the way, one lucky winner identified the title of the last post (PUUPh ("puff") Give) as an allusion to the line "puff, puff, give" from the movie Friday! For proving himself seriously smart, this reader wins a deluxe copy of my vanity-published puzzle book, Word Puzzles for the Seriously Smart. Enjoy!


dr. dave said...

My favorite part of this was the explanation of the hierarchy of first-order, second-order, etc. approximations. (And NOT just because the title of my blog happens to be "Second Order Approximation!")

I think that golf-ball example is a useful enough one to share with students in the first few weeks of class. I don't think enough is made of the fact that we almost never solve a "realistic" problem in a physics class, and yet we consider this not a WEAKNESS of physics - but its strength - to be able to strip a physical situation down to its bare essentials and uncover some fundamental laws that govern it.

danimal said...

"Now I cover about a fifth of the material I used to, but a year later, my students have probably only forgotten 90% of it." (from "Is Physics a Liberal Art?")

I think I agree that covering less material at a reasonable pace is on balance probably a more effective way to teach. A couple of thoughts:

(1) How clear is the meaning of "forgetting material"? I've found when trying to recall material from various graduate courses that there are degrees of retention. In many cases, I think the benefit of having been at certain lectures (even if my understanding was incomplete at the time) is the ability to more quickly reconstruct/relearn material. Does this benefit of "incomplete exposure" argue for including more material, at least in some cases?

(2) With the time gained from covering less material, I think along with more "big picture" stuff, time could be spent presenting (explicit) conceptual maps of the course, and the relationship of the specific topics to one another. It is difficult for a student to both absorb the technical aspects of physics and develop the mental framework in which to organize the material, especially given their busy schedules. And yet my most rewarding and probably most valuable educational experiences have come after I (or a teacher) have developed (or presented) such a map. My high school physics teacher did a fantastic job of "telling a story" in building up mechanics, then electricity and magnetism, then a simple version of Maxwell's equations, by frequently discussing the logical structure of the course and the progression of topics covered. It made a great impression on me and probably led me to study physics.

By rewarding students in this way (and it can be a great reward if done well), one might inspire them to make time to try this themselves. It would be interesting (though maybe difficult) to study the effect of making frequent conceptual linkages to previous and upcoming topics in a course on the long-term retention rate.