This I Believe

Michael - Ellensburg, Washington
Entered on June 28, 2006

One of my most deeply held beliefs is played out on a more or less daily basis in front of students enrolled in the physics classes that I teach at Central Washington University. It’s no secret why most students take my classes – biology majors, chemistry majors, engineering majors, geology majors, a smattering from other a few other disciplines, and a precious few physics majors. These students enroll in the classes I teach largely from curricular requirements – my classes, in many cases, are seen by them as little more than a hurdle on their sometimes long and difficult and increasingly expensive path toward a college diploma, medical school, graduate school, or a career.

And so I teach students to know and apply Newton’s laws so that a future engineer can build a roof truss that will not collapse, Snell’s law so that a future optometrist can prescribe corrective lenses, and electromagnetic theory to prepare a future physics graduate student to pass her preliminary exams. The roof truss holds its snow load, the myopic patient clearly sees Orion, and the problem in electromagnetic theory is brilliantly solved. And as typically considered, these results measure how well I have done my job.

But wait a moment – what purpose is served by the future optometrist being able to analyze a roof truss or the future research physicist being able to produce a contact lens prescription? What role is there for a chemistry major capable of calculating the rotational speed of a spinning ice skater or a business major who can predict the orbital period of a non-existent planet between Earth and Venus? My teaching has produced all of these and more. The easy – but I believe incomplete – answer is that perhaps the business student will wind up founding an aerospace company, the optometrist will spot the flaw in a contractors roof truss before it collapses. Those are good outcomes, of course, but the idea that we teach only with eventual utilitarian application in mind does not, and never has satisfied me.

The utilitarian rationale suggests that we could and should pick those topics to teach that are most likely to have application. But the problem with this is that the history of science makes abundantly clear that its very nature – the fundamentally tentative nature of scientific understanding and its powerful structure that maps a very few simple postulates onto an uncountably infinite array of complex phenomena – means that it is manifestly impossible to pick among the applications that are most likely to be productive. And if we try, we find the mischievous nature of the universe, always behaving as it must and not necessarily as we imagine or as we wish, eluding our best intentions.

So I think much more important, is that behind the utilitarian façade of physics and science lurks a somewhat well-kept secret at least in its usual academic presentation: a conceptual structure, an elegance and unity, a beauty that supports no load, that is of as little use to the myopic as to the blind, that produces no answers for an exam, that is transcendent. I am regularly gratified in my teaching by witnessing students access that transcendence – a change in visage that unmistakably communicates powerful understanding, an involuntarily gasped “cool”, or a profound question at the end of class.

And this, in the final analysis, is why I teach. I find that a well taught physics class does a miraculous thing – it changes the very structure of a human mind, the way in which one person sees, understands and interacts with the universe they inhabit. I think that through the process of understanding and seeing beauty and unity in the universe we touch the core of humanity, we become human. I believe in the intrinsic value of learning – its INTRINSIC value, with no need for justification or an expectation of eventual utility – and have faith supported by the historical record that, where appropriate, the applications will follow.