Confused at a higher level

The view from Carleton College's physics department

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Good classes

Posted by Arjendu on January 17, 2008

Students in almost all my physics classes read the textbook, send in questions which I use to guide me in constructing my lecture, and then we work on problems together in some of the classroom sessions. I asked the students in the quantum class how it was going yesterday, and one of them said: ‘Well, I don’t really get it at all when I read the book, and the lecture — I get it a little bit more, and it’s only when we do the problems, I sort of start feeling good about what we learned. ‘ And I couldn’t help getting a big smile on my face: ‘Yes! That’s not a bug, it’s a feature.’

The ‘Revolutions’ class had a visit from Bob Russell, Director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, as promised. I enjoyed myself thoroughly — I got to provide a provocative intellectual experience for the students, and the speaker got some wonderful interaction with the students — and I didn’t have to do a thing except introduce them to each other. He talked about how the ‘equation’ of science with atheism was not valid, and that it was possible to be either an atheist and a scientist, or religious and a scientist, with the argument presented mostly from the perspective of philosophical underpinnings of inquiry — that is, epistemology.

What I took away from it was that if you were, like him, deeply religious and trained as a physicist, you could manage to keep the two ideas together in your mind without seriously compromising either. I would also add: for the most part. Not all of the arguments convinced me, or felt substantial enough to hang something this big upon.

He tried to lay this out mostly in the context of cosmology and the issue of a t=0 moment (at the origin of the Big Bang) and how that was handled by various people from their atheistic or religious perspective. The students were wonderful — they are mainly humanists, and they drew from their training and their basic intelligence to keep Bob on his toes, forcing him to reach deep to clarify and re-frame his points, etc so that his arguments steadily became more precise. A classic liberal arts moment.

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