Science thoroughly permeates society, whether determining guilt or innocence in a court of law or the origins of life and the universe. For many issues, scientists are considered by our society as the ultimate authorities responsible for what we know. To understand the modern world and our place in it, then, we must understand science. What does it say is true? What is the basis of its authority? What are science’s strengths and limitations? How do we integrate science into other ways of knowing?
Gutenberg College has chosen to focus its science curriculum on the foundations of science: what it is, how it works, its methods, and its scope and limits. The goal of the curriculum is to provide a systematic framework within which to understand modern science. This understanding will enable the lifelong learner to assess the findings of science now and in the future as each separate field of science continues to change and expand with an abundance of new information.
The seminars scientifically and philosophically examine four significant scientific theories: Copernican astronomy, Darwin’s theory of evolution, relativity theory, and quantum mechanics. Throughout the seminars, foundational questions are at issue: What is science? What are its methods? And how does science justify its claims?
Astronomy: The Copernican Revolution (SCI 101, 201, 203). In a series of three seminars in their freshman and sophomore years, students examine the Copernican Revolution. This revolution transformed not only man’s understanding of science, but transformed man’s understanding of all knowledge and how it is obtained. This seminar series begins with Ptolemy’s earth-centered model, moves through the Renaissance discoveries, and culminates in the mathematical treatment of Isaac Newton. Students read portions of Ptolemy’s Almagest and Copernicus’s On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres and from the works of Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, and Newton.
Biology: Darwin’s theory of evolution (SCI 301) and population dynamics (SCI 302). Two junior-year science seminars explore the development of modern biology.
The first seminar focuses on Darwin’s theory of evolution. The seminar critically examines the theory and how Darwin justified his claim that the theory is true. In order to understand the theory and its significance, the seminar also explores a number of related topics. It traces the major developments and perspectives on biology from Aristotle to Darwin. And because the logic of Darwin’s argument depends heavily on Charles Lyell’s Uniformitarianism in geology, the seminar also examines Uniformitarianism. Lastly, the seminar examines the developments of biology from Darwin through Mendel to Crick and Watson’s discovery of the structure of DNA.
The second seminar focuses on population dynamics. In this seminar, the students are introduced to the basic mathematical models of population change. We begin with the idea of exponential growth and develop the concepts of the intrinsic growth rate and generation time, paying close attention to assumptions of the models. During this course the students learn to work with census data to characterize the rates of population change.
Physics: Theories of relativity (SCI 401) & quantum mechanics (SCI 402). Two senior-year science seminars are devoted to the study of Einstein’s theory of relativity and the theory of quantum mechanics. Both theories have changed our culture’s outlook on fundamental concepts. Both ask us to reject our intuitive notions of the world around us. Both have been used to suggest that absolutes do not exist. The focus of these seminars will be to examine the nature of our intuition, our rationality, and mathematical formalism and to look at how and on what basis we can determine what is and what is not true.
The relativity seminar examines the scientific and philosophical reasons that led to Einstein’s adopting his theory. It then explores why the theory was so widely and rapidly accepted by both the scientific and nonscientific communities.
The quantum mechanics seminar begins with a historical overview of some of the key experiments on light and electrons. This leads to readings about the problems intrinsic in quantum phenomena and the various interpretations of these phenomena.
Science Practicum (SCI 202)
During one quarter of the sophomore year, students are given the opportunity to practice the art of experimental science. They learn by researching and exploring aspects of pendulum motion. Using the work of Galileo as a guide (and the tutor as a resource), students make careful and exact measurements to discover the validity of different theoretical predictions. In this practicum, students must wrestle with the roles that theory and expectations play in scientific experiments.