Professor of Science Education & Physics
Professor of Physics & Associate Dean of Basic Sciences
Louisiana State University Baton Rouge, LA 70803
This paper describes attempts to revive a dormant physics course for non science majors at Louisiana State University, using history and philosophy of science (HPS) as key components. Texts by Nobel Prize winner Leon Cooper and Harvard physicist/historian Gerald Holton, along with video segments from The Mechanical Universe, are used to portray the struggle to understand the physical universe, from Copernicus and Kepler in the late 16th century to Curie and Einstein in the early 20th century. Together, these three sources form an excellent foundation on which to build an understanding of the origins of scientific ideas about our physical universe. From a list entitled “Some Philosophical Questions” (e.g., Is science democratic?, How can we decide whether claims are scientific?, Are scientific models real?) students write papers and discuss ideas as part of their efforts to understand physics. HPS in a College Physics Course provides details about the course, including the authors’ impressions of its success and how such courses might be used in science teacher education reform.
In the introductory chapter of his excellent text (Science Teaching: The Role of History and Philosophy of Science) Matthews (1994, p. 6) identifies six ways HPS can contribute to the improvement of science teaching and learning. Of these, two are especially relevant to the college physics course described in this paper: 1. HPS can humanize the sciences and connect them to personal, ethical, cultural and political concerns. 2. HPS can contribute to the fuller understanding of scientific subject matter. Understanding science as a human endeavor includes associating ideas in science with real people who live real lives, including their struggles to understand nature.
Science For All Americans (AAAS, 1989) identifies 13 ideas in the first chapter (The Nature of Science) that scientifically literate persons should understand:
.The World Is Understandable
.Scientific Ideas Are Subject to Change
.Scientific Knowledge Is Durable
.Science Cannot Provide Complete Answers to All Questions
.Science Demands Evidence
.Science Is a Blend of Logic and Imagination
.Science Explains and Predicts
.Science Is Not Authoritarian
.Science Is a Complex Social Activity
.Science Is Organized into Content Disciplines and Is Conducted in Various Institutions
.There Are Generally Accepted Ethical Principles in the Conduct of Science
.Scientists Participate in Public Affairs Both as Specialists and as Citizens
These ideas, when intertwined with the broad themes of science as a human endeavor, served as guidelines for the development of PHYS 2401 –Introduction to Concepts in Physics. An excellent review of research on students’ and teachers’ ideas about the nature of science can be found in the Journal of Research in Science Teaching by Lederman (1992).
This paper is organized in the following way:
Section 1 -Introduction
Section 2 -Reviving and Rethinking a Dormant Course.
Section 3 -Textbooks and Other Course Materials.
Section 4 -Some Philosophical Questions (Used throughout the course to encourage thought and discussion about the nature of science).
Section 5 -The Sand Reckoner (A guest lecture by physicist Greg Hussey on Archimedes).
Section 6 -Confronting Aristotle (Aristotelian physics, including similar (mis)conceptions held by most people today)
Section 7 -Holton’s Thematic Analysis Gerald Holton’s ideas on broad themes (e.g., simplicity, symmetry, conservation continuity) as sources of imagination in science. See review of latest edition.
Section 8 -The Lion is known by His Claw (The tremendous accomplishments of Newton).
Section 9 -Beyond the Mechanical Universe (Entering the less certain, strange worlds of Planck, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, etc.).
Section 10 -Reflections and Ideas for the Future.
The story told in this paper continues to evolve as PHYS 2401 is taught during the fall of 1995. Reflections on its effectiveness and ideas for the future are offered in the final section.
REVIVING AND RETHINKING A DORMANT COURSE
The LSU General Catalog description of PHYS 2401 is:
“Introduction to Concepts in Physics (3): Primarily for students in liberal arts and education. Historical evolution and underlying philosophy of principles of
physics; provides appreciation of physics; does not develop technical skill.”
With this description as a guide plus the ideas on the use of HPS found in Matthews’ (1994) and guidelines for science literacy regarding nature of science found in Science For All Americans (1989), PHYS 2401 was revised and taught during the Fall of 1993 for the first time in over five years. It was taught again during the 1994 fall semester and is scheduled again for 1995.
TEXTBOOKS AND OTHER COURSE MATERIALS
Of the many introductory physics texts available today, one seems to be particularly well suited for PHYS 2401. PHYSICS: Structure and Meaning (1992) by Leon N. Cooper, 1972 Nobel Prize winner in physics, takes a historical, mainly qualitative approach to describing and explaining the nature of physics. In the Preface, Cooper explains his intentions:
“I have tried, in all, to present physics as one attempt made by human beings to organize their experience –different in technique, but not totally different in outlook from that of the painter, for example, whose canvas is often his organization of his experience of light and color. It seems to me that important physics, as important painting, imposes the vision of the scientist/artist on the raw data, in principle available to everyone. A generation or two later the world appears to us as that vision. (p. xii)”
This text by Cooper serves as the main source of ideas in print about physics.
A second text, also required, serves to introduce students to thematic analysis of ideas about the physical world. Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein (1988) by Gerald Holton, Harvard University Professor of Physics and History of Science, introduces the reader to themes (e.g., conservation, continuity, simplicity) that have influenced the course of science. In his Introduction, Holton talks of personal and public science and how themes, or themata as he calls them, can be studied:
“The study of the personal context of discovery has in fact come into its own in the past few decades. As I have indicated, it is now clear that one must distinguish between science in the sense of the personal struggle and a different, communal activity, also called “science,” which is its public, institutional aspect. (p. 9)
It is possible that the origin of themata will be best approached through studies concerned with the nature of perception, and particularly of the psychological development of concepts in early life But, for my part the most fruitful stance to take now is akin to that of a folklorist or anthropologist, namely, to look for and identify recurring general themata in the preoccupation of individual scientists and of the profession as a whole, and to identify their role in the development of science. (p. 17)”
Holton’s Thematic Origins provides insights into fundamental processes of scientific thought that nicely complement Cooper’s physics text. Although an occasional paper from other sources is assigned, these two texts provide the main reading materials for PHYS 2401.
Finally, the third major source of ideas developed in the course is The Mechanical Universe…And Beyond, a video series of 52 30-minute programs that re-enact great moments in the history of science (physics) and explain, with excellent graphics, central physics concepts and models. About one-third of the 52 programs are used throughout the semester-long PHYS 2401 to introduce or further explain ideas from the time of Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton to Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, and Bohr. The Mechanical Universe… And Beyond (1985) is produced by the California Institute of Technology (introductory lectures by Caltech professor David L. Goodstein) and the Southern California Consortium and distributed by the Annenberg/CPB Collection. Winner of the prestigious international Japan Prize, The Mechanical Universe… And Beyond is very effective in capturing the interest of students and in promoting discussion during and after classes. Whether used to humanize science or to assist students in developing more accurate conceptions of scientists’ ideas about the physical world, The Mechanical Universe is an excellent science education resource.
The preceding three sources (Cooper text, Holton text, Mechanical Universe videos) comprise the large majority of the reading and viewing material for PHYS 2401. Included among the secondary sources used in the course are materials from:
.Cromer, A. (1993). Uncommon sense: The heretical nature of science. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
.Ferris, T. (1988). Coming of age in the Milky Way. New York, NY: Morrow.
.Lightman, A. (1992). Great ideas in physics. New York, NY: McGraw-Hili.
.Wolpert, L. (1993). The unnatural nature of science. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
SOME PHILOSOPHICAL QUESTIONS
To encourage students in PHYS 2401 to think about the nature of science as described in Science For All Americans. Matthews (1994), and other contemporary sources, a list of24 “philosophical” questions is provided early in the semester. The questions are reprinted here as they are given to the students:
Some Philosophical Questions:
- Are laws of physics discovered or invented?
- How can we decide whether claims are scientific?
- Is science democratic?
- How are science and religion related?
- Is science basically helpful or harmful?
- How certain can we be of science’s products?
- What is the relationship of theory to evidence in science?
- What are some of the influences of society on science?
- How have society-science interactions changed since Galileo?
- What does it mean to be scientifically literate?
- What is “the scientific method”?
- Are there ideas in science of which we can be certain?
- What are the limits of science?
- Do aesthetics playa role in science?
- What is the role of the experiment in science?
- Is the science of physics a unique way of knowing?
- How do scientific theories change?
- What is the meaning of “theory” in science?
- Are scientific models real?
- Is physics gender-biased?
- How is science related to technology?
- How does physics as a way of knowing compare to literature as a way of knowing?
- How might misconceptions about physics concepts originate?
- How can we distinguish between science and pseudoscience?
Throughout the semester these questions appear in assignments, exams, and as part of discussions in class. Some of the questions are used by students as the focus of their term papers. For example, in his paper “Paradox Lost: The Cosmology and Physics of Milton’s Paradise Lost” student Jeffrey Dupuis (1993) writes:
“While the Ptolemaic system is the manifestation of Divine order, Raphael’s mention of a different system is quite important. By transforming the center of the cosmos from the Earth to the Sun in a heliocentric system, Milton is at once able to acknowledge the “new astronomy” of Copernicus and thereby foreshadow the Fall of Man when expelled from Eden–the center of the Universe–and forced to abide in a new world (the heliocentric universe) where there exists no longer harmony with God. (pp. 6-7)”
“Some Philosophical Questions” play a much more prominent role in PHYS 2401 than was expected when they were first conceived. To a large extent, the “philosophy” of the course is embodied in these questions.
THE SAND RECKONER
Early in the course a guest lecture by Greg Hussey, Professor of Physics and Associate Dean of Basic Sciences at LSU, on Archimedes (287-212 B.C.) of Syracuse (Sicily) highlights the contributions of Archimedes, with a focus on “The Sand Reckoner” (see Dijksterhuis, 1987 for an excellent account of Archimedes’ work, including The Sand Reckoner). The influence of Greek thought more than 2000 years ago on modem science (beginning with Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, etc.) is pointed out by Professor Hussey in the work and thought of Archimedes. In The Sand Reckoner, Archimedes uses Aristarchus’ estimate of the size of the universe and then shows how Euclid’s geometry can be used to arrive at an estimate of the number of grains of sand that would be required to fill a sphere the size of the universe. Archimedes’ powers of estimation are truly impressive, providing an excellent example from more than 2000 years ago of a very important aspect of scientific thought today.
Selecting Archimedes’ work and thought as among the best of the influential Greek thinkers two millennia ago, helps the students in PHYS 2401 appreciate the power of method in science and mathematics. Also, they see that although Aristarchus proposed that the Earth revolved around the sun, nearly 2000 years before Copernicus’ work it is not Aristarchus but Copernicus who is credited with displacing the Earth from the center of the universe. Cooper (1992, p. 45) explains that Aristarchus’ proposal required his contemporaries to assume a universe far greater in size than that proposed by Aristotle, so his ideas were dismissed. It is a nice example from the history of science that can be used to discuss how and why credit is assigned to people as they propose ideas to explain how nature works. It is not always the first proposer who gets the credit; the nature of the claim and how it is viewed by one’s colleagues play a critical part in the process.
Since we have come this far with The Sand Reckoner, it is worth telling the end of the story. Dijksterhuis (1987, pp. 360-373) tells us Archimedes worked through the mathematics for King Gelon and arrived at a number of 10S1 for the grains of sand in the cosmos. The Sand Reckoner ends with these words:
“I conceive, King Gelon, that these things will appear incredible to the numerous persons who have not studied mathematics; but to those who are conversant therewith and have given thought to the distances and the sizes of the earth, the sun, and the moon, and of the whole cosmos, the proof will carry conviction. It is for this reason that I thought it would not displease you either to consider these things. (p. 373)”
During the last two decades” Aristotelian thought” has been found to be common in students of all ages. Hundreds of studies show that students develop ideas about our physical environment, mechanics in particular, that are similar to the pre-Newtonian/Aristotelian ideas credited to the influence of Aristotle (384-322 B.C.). Examples of these studies can be found in AAAS (1993), Arons (1990), Camp and Clement (1994), Cromer (1993), Maloney (1994), Pfund and Duit (1991), Wandersee, Mintzes, and Novak (1994), and throughout journals such as American Journal of Physics, International Journal of Science Education, Journal of Research in Science Teaching, Physics Education, Science Education and The Physics Teacher.
Cooper’s (1992, p. 119) statement, “Seeing is not easy when belief is strong,” explains nicely the influence of Aristotle’s physics on his contemporaries and nearly all people who cared to think about such things until Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and finally Newton (1642-1727) developed different ideas.
To help students in PHYS 2401 understand Aristotle’s belief system about what we now call mechanics in physics, brief selections from his Physical Treatises (in Aristotle I, Great Books of the Western World. R. Hutchins, Ed.) are read and discussed in class. Examples of the selections follow:
.Of things that exist, some exist by nature, some from other causes. (p. 268)
.Each of them has within itself a principle of motion and of stationariness. (p. 268)because what is heavy is naturally carried downwards and what is light to the top, wherefore the stones and foundations take the lowest place, with the earth above because it is lighter, and wood at the top of all as being the lightest. (p. 277)
.But when an event takes place always or for the most part, it is not incidental or by chance. (p.277)
.It is plain then that nature is a cause, a cause that operates for a purpose. (p. 277)
All of these statements reflect a belief in a grand design. Aristotle and those who followed for nearly two millennia were unable to separate nature from the grand design dogma embodied in Aristotle’s work. Through assignments and class discussion, students in PHYS 2401 compare authoritarianism and science. Dawkins’ (1987) Blind Watchmaker is discussed to highlight the unpredictable nature of evolution of life, including the fact that most species eventually become extinct; this would seem to be a peculiar design for Aristotle’s kind of Grand Designer.
Even without influence from a belief in Aristotle’s kind of Grand Designer, students of all ages develop ideas about force and motion (mechanics) that are similar to Aristotelean physics. Among these everyday, prescientific notions are: (1) a constant force applied to an object causes it to move at constant velocity; (2) a force moves an object in the direction of the force; and (3) moving objects slow down unless a force is applied. Understanding one’s environment in terms of Newtonian physics rather than Aristotelian physics is neither natural nor easy, as Wolpert (1993), Cromer (1993), and many studies during the last two decades have shown.
Before confronting the great lion of physics, a brief digression into Holton’s (1988) thematic analysis is made to highlight the use of his ideas of PHYS 2401.
HOLTON’S THEMATIC ANALYSIS
First published in 1973 and again (in revised form) in 1988, Thematic Origins of Scientific Thought: Kepler to Einstein is praised by Harvard’s E. O. Wilson as “a brilliant explanation of the true, powerful process of scientific thought” (back cover). On page one in the Introduction, Holton (1988) explains the principal aim of Thematic Origins: “Throughout the book a chief aim is to inquire, by means of specific case studies of physical scientists from Kepler to Einstein and Bohr, how the scientific mind works” (p. 1). Early in the book Holton provides his first example of thema:
Thus on February 10, 1605 –a date that might be taken to be historic for physics –he [Kepler] revealed for the first time his devotion to the thema of the universe as a physical machine in which universal terrestrial force laws would hold for the operation of the whole cosmos… (p. 2)
Holton continues in the next sentence in Thematic Origins to explain the nature and importance of Themata in science:
“But his [Kepler’s] effort would have been doomed if he had not supplemented the mechanistic image with two other, very different ones: the universe as a mathematical harmony and the universe as a central theological order. These three themata continued to echo in the work of the seventeenth-century scientists who followed Kepler, and indeed up to the delayed triumph of the purely mechanistic view in the completion of Newton’s work by Laplace. (pp. 2-3)”
Throughout Thematic Origins Holton differentiates between public science and private science. Public science is “dry-cleaned” of the personal elements resulting in a science that the public sees as final and generally uncontroversial. Most publications portray science as a straightforward, linear progression practiced by dispassionate, somewhat odd people. The conflicts within and between scientists are seldom seen even though, as Holton shows:
“Cases abound that give evidence of the role of “unscientific” preconceptions, passionate motivations, varieties of temperament, intuitive leaps, serendipity or sheer bad luck, not to speak of the incredible tenacity with which certain ideas have been held despite the fact that they conflicted with the plain experimental evidence, or the neglect of theories that would have quickly solved an experimental puzzle (p. 8)”
The ideas in Thematic Origins are seen by most students in PHYS 2401 as interesting, but difficult. The scholarly presentation by Holton, a strength of the book as seen by other scholars with like interests, is a challenge to many undergraduates whose interests in science are not deep. Details deemed necessary by Holton are little appreciated by many students in PHYS 2401. Some students, however, find the reading unproblematic and do not understand why others complain of difficult reading.
The distinctions between public and private science in Thematic Origins and the examples of themes/them at a used by scientists from Kepler to Einstein are very useful in painting a more accurate picture of how science is done ~ it appears in the textbooks. The challenge for the teacher of a course like PHYS 2401 is to translate, summarize, and present the key ideas in ways that are accessible to students before they give up on the scholarly treatment by Holton.
THE LION IS KNOWN BY HIS CLAW
The fourth of 47 chapters in Cooper’s PHYSICS: Structure and Meaning is entitled “The Lion Is Known by His Claw.” Following earlier descriptions of the contributions of Galileo, Cooper (1992) opens this chapter with the statement:
“Isaac Newton, born the year Galileo died, grasped the tools, the insights, the knowledge that had set the seventeenth century scientific world in a ferment, and adding his own inventions created the first great modem physical theory, a structure so remarkable that it dominated the landscape of human thought for two centuries. (p. 31)”
Building on Galileo’s work on falling bodies and earlier contributions by Kepler and others, Newton developed the foundation of his physical theory and the associated mathematics (calculus) during the years 1764- 1766, before he was 25 years old! Twenty years later (July, 1687) at the urging of Edmond Halley, Newton wrote and published his “Principia”, in which his revolutionary physical theory is consolidated and detailed. In three laws, Newton overturned Aristotelian physics, at least with his colleagues in science. More than three centuries after the publication of Principia most lay persons continue to reflect Aristotelian ideas of force and motion. As Wolpert (1993) points out, “Science does not fit with our natural expectations” (p. 1).
To supplement the text material in Cooper, two video programs (Newton’s Laws, The Apple and The Moon) from Mechanical Universe are viewed and discussed during weeks 4-6 in PHYS 2401. Each 30-minute video is a valuable resource, both for explaining physics concepts and in portraying Newton and his contemporaries in a realistic way. By combining re-enactments of history, animations of objects in motion, and modem-day applications of Newton’s physics, the videos do what cannot otherwise be done in ordinary “talk and chalk” lectures. More details on Isaac Newton can be found in Westfall’s (1993) The Life of Isaac Newton, a source used throughout the semester in PHYS 2401.
The first half of PHYS 2401 focuses on the nature of Aristotelian physics and the transition to Newtonian physics. Galileo’s work on velocity and acceleration is the focus of at least three classes, including considerable work on sketching qualitative line graphs (i.e., no numbers) of common events, both in and out of the classroom. The work on kinematics by the physics education group at the University of Washington is helpful during this phase of the course. At least half of the students find that graphic representation of common events (e.g., dropping a coin, bouncing a ball, flight of a bird, cycling up and down a hill) is not easy for them. Program two, “The Law of Falling Bodies” in the Mechanical Universe is quite helpful in representing and explaining concepts that many of the students find difficult to understand.
Following the midterm exam the remainder of the course is devoted to studying the origins of relativity theory and quantum theory.
BEYOND THE MECHANICAL UNIVERSE
In his excellent chapter on the origins of Einstein’s special theory of relativity, Holton (1988) looks at influences on Einstein’s early work leading to the publication of his 1905 paper on relativity (“Zur Elektrodynamik bewegter Korper”) in Annalen Der Physik, Holton notes that Einstein’s paper begins with “a curious question”:
“Why is there in Maxwell’s theory one equation for finding the electromotive force generated in a moving conductor when it goes past a stationary magnet, and another equation when the conductor is stationary and the magnet is moving? (Holton, 1988, p. 212)”
His question about this anomaly, placed in the paper before other concerns and analyses, suggests that Einstein was, most of all, trying to resolve what to him was a most unsatisfactory situation. It should be only the relative motion between the conductor and magnet that counts. To resolve this fundamental problem Einstein was willing to do what none of his contemporaries were able to do; he dismissed the conceptions of absolute motion and of the ether!
Although Holton’s chapter on the origins of the special theory of relativity contains more details than most students in PHYS 2401 are interested in knowing, an important message is communicated. Holton makes it clear that Einstein was willing to question fundamental conceptions of space and time in order to eliminate the anomaly already mentioned in Maxwell’s theory. The epistemological implications regarding space and time are difficult to comprehend and accept, as illustrated in the comments on the 1905 relativity paper by Max von Laue, a physicist and contemporary of Einstein:
“…slowly but steadily a new world opened before me. I had to spend a great deal of effort on it And particularly epistemological difficulties gave me much trouble. I believe that only since about 1950 have I mastered them. (Holton, 1988, p. 213)”
About 10 class meetings are devoted to comparing Newtonian physics with Einsteinian physics, utilizing chapters in both Cooper and Holton and four excellent video programs from the Mechanical Universe and Beyond: (1) The Michelson-Morley Experiment; (2) The Lorentz Transformation; (3) Velocity and Time; and (4) Mass, Momentum, Energy. Confusion and disbelief are good descriptors for most students’ reactions to the material on relativity. We discuss the strong conviction to his theory Einstein had to have in light of the fundamental changes required in thinking about space and time concepts; however, discussion does not seem to clarify much of the physics for the students. As von Laue suggests, it takes a great deal of effort and a long time to understand and accept the implications of Einstein’s relativity theory.
The final weeks in PHYS 2401 are devoted to late 19th century ideas about the structure of the atom, the beginnings of the quantum theory, discussion of current ideas on science in our society, and presentation and discussion of student term papers.
REFLECTIONS AND IDEAS FOR THE FUTURE
In its revised format PHYS 2401 is being taught for the third time during the 1995 fall semester. Two things missing in the previous two offerings are a part of the syllabus for the 1995 fall semester: (1) labs to recreate some of Galileo’s experiments with inclined planes and pendula, and (2) computer simulations of experiments with inclined planes using “Graphs and Tracks” by David Trowbridge from Physics Academic Software. The majority of the time students spend working on experiments and computer simulations will be done as part of assignments outside of regular class time, although reports and discussions in class will occur. It is anticipated that these activities will provide students with the experiences to better understand kinematics while having personal opportunities to appreciate the experimental side of the nature of science.
Having the freedom to explore HPS issues in PHYS 2401 without feeling the pressure to achieve a specified level of “technical” competence in solving physics problems is important. Also, some topics that are ordinarily included in introductory physics courses for science or engineering majors are barely mentioned in PHYS 2401. For example, thermodynamics, electrostatics, and nuclear physics receive very little attention. Because students are not expected to develop technical competence for future science-related courses, more attention can be given to topics that fit more nicely with a focus on HPS. The nature of physics/science as a way of knowing is on the center stage in PHYS 2401. However, the ideas, including the conceptual physics, are challenging to the students. Classical mechanics and relativity theory are among the most conceptually difficult areas for students, as shown by the hundreds of studies on (mis)conceptions reported during the past two decades.
PHYS 2401 is a demanding course. It deals with sophisticated and important ideas about the historical and philosophical nature of science. More college students, especially those who will teach science one day, should have the opportunity to grapple with ideas similar to those in PHYS 2401.
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