In your November 1 editorial, you claimed that students enrolled in discussion-based courses like Hum, Sosc, and Civ “often have a newfound respect for the fields that they were exposed to,” whereas “similar claims cannot be made for lecture-based courses like Core Bio, Global Warming, or Chemistry and the Atmosphere.” Such an argument glosses over the real issue: Courses like Global Warming or Chemistry and the Atmosphere teach very little real science. Indeed, the claim that Chemistry in the Atmosphere teaches anything even resembling real chemistry is nothing short of ludicrous, and it is insulting to those majoring in scientific fields.
Why are students enrolled in Chemistry and the Atmosphere so uninspired when those majoring in scientific fields frequently seem so invigorated by what they learn? It cannot be because the material is taught by lecture; some (indeed, most) of the University’s best and most inspiring science classes are taught in a lecture format. The actual answer should be obvious: Students enrolled in real science classes are learning fundamental truths about the universe, not rules of basic arithmetic. How can students in Chemistry and the Atmosphere be inspired when they are learning nothing inspiring?
Nor is the editorial’s proposed solution any better: The authors encourage the creation of discussion- and reading-based science classes, lamenting that the teachings “of Farraday [sic] and Heisenberg are available to a small minority.” Unfortunately, not only does such an approach fall prey to the same problems as the current one, it just wouldn’t work. Non-scientists might like to believe that science can be treated in much the same manner as are the humanities, and that one can understand a scientific text simply by reading it carefully enough, but such a belief is simply untrue. To understand Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle requires a great deal of mathematics, including a solid understanding of topology, linear algebra, and functional analysis, maths that are not likely to be possessed by those interested in a casual discussion class.
However, the problem does admit one obvious solution strangely overlooked by the authors of the editorial. Students wishing to be inspired and challenged and learn science in the process, are free to take the introductory courses offered in the chemistry and physics departments. There, they can gain a scientific literacy unavailable to their colleagues enrolled in Chemistry and the Atmosphere.
Benjamin Gammage, Class of 2014