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!