November 15, 2012

Letter: Global Warming Prof makes case for PhySci

In response to: "A new scientific method."

An editorial entitled “A New Scientific Method” argues that the Physical Sciences core classes, intended for non-science majors, should be gutted to spare non-scientists the math that science majors have to do. This is not a new thought; the education market is singular in that consumers consistently demand less for their money! The editorial also wonders “what foundations of knowledge…these classes (Ice-Age Earth, Environmental History of the Earth, Global Warming, Chemistry and the Atmosphere, Natural Hazards, Foundations of Modern Physics, Astronomy and Astrophysics, and The Origin of the Universe) [are] trying to establish.” I will only speak directly for Global Warming, but professors talk, so I know that the goals and approaches of the other classes are similar.

Ask “why” a few times in a row and the answers get more universal; you end up seeing something of the universe of the scientific enterprise in the grain of sand of a question at hand. The Global Warming class brings in styles of thinking from physics, chemistry, biology, Earth and planetary sciences, computer science, and economics, all ultimately described using mathematics. The physics of space-time (electromagnetic radiation), quantum mechanics (true weirdness), the chemistry behind the wondrous stability of Earth’s biosphere, and, yes, the potential human impact on Earth’s climate—I think it’s a cool story, and a good story to tell people who aren’t going to take many more classes in the physical sciences.

The scientific enterprise has grown to the point that no single human mind can hold it all, and it takes years to reach the edge of science even for a tiny question. Nevertheless, a well-educated layperson can learn how to understand and assess the fruits of science, rather than ignorantly enjoying them, by seeing the power of the successive “why’s.” The PhySci core classes are some of the best examples of a “University of Chicago style” of thinking deeply from a beginner’s perspective in science. Although my class is designed for non-scientists, it turns out that science majors, grad students, and professors at other universities using the textbook (written for the class) are also delighted to discover how much they learn from this approach. And Chicago students in particular, shown all the rungs of the ladder, will climb right up and follow me anywhere. This is why I find teaching non-science students here so stimulating and rewarding.

Stay feisty. Stay curious. See you in the spring.

David Archer, Professor in the Department of The Geophysical Sciences