Saturday, May 21, 2005

The art of physics

I'm well out of teaching now, but I still walk in to the college each day, where I have been kindly provided with a space for pursuing genteel retirement. And I watch with detached delight the debates about a subject that has been on the agenda since I started teaching 43 years ago: What should be the science component of general education?

Some of our faculty think general education should consist of an introductory course of physics, chemistry or biology, pretty much the same thing science majors take, but perhaps less rigorous. Others opt for something that won't put students to sleep or turn them off science forever, and so offer courses called, for example, "The Chemistry of Art."

I have a colleague who says the course should not be "The Chemistry of Art," but rather "The Art of Chemistry," and that's pretty much what I tried to do during my many years of teaching general studies. My goal was not to convey the content of physics, but the essence of physics itself.

For example, a splendid introduction to the physicist's way of knowing is Aristarchus's On the Sizes and Distances of the Sun and Moon, a book that's more than 2000 years old but a perfectly brilliant example of what physics is all about: With a few simple observations and some elegant mathematics (which any high-school student could do today), Aristarchus deduces, yes, the sizes and distances of the Sun and Moon, and suddenly the universe becomes very much larger than what people had previously supposed.

Or stand with the old, nearly blind Galileo and watch him roll a ball down an inclined plane, timing its passage with a water clock. The distance the ball traverses is proportional to the square of the time! In this simple experiment is revealed the very thing that makes physics possible: the mysterious consilience of mind and nature through mathematics.

One can go on, right up to the most recent issues of Physical Review, but you get the idea: Not physics, not the physics of art, but the art of physics.