Inventing Reality: The Human Search for Truth
Spring 2001, Hampshire College
Lecture Time: M 1:30 - 2:20; W,F 1:00 - 2:20
Stargazing and Extended Discussion: M 8:00 - 9:30 PM
Place: Room 333, Cole Science Center
Instructor: Douglas Leonard
Office: Room 212, Cole Science Center
Course Website: http://helios.hampshire.edu/~dclNS/inventingreality/
Telephone and Office Hours: TBA!
Creating order out of our universe has been a perennial human pastime.
Accepted truths have had a history of transience, with the models of each age
yielding to the paradigm shifts of the next. Here we examine this continuing
human dialogue, tracing a crooked line from ancient Babylonia to the present,
accompanied along the way by such powerful thinkers as Aristotle, Aquinas,
Newton, and Einstein. We will explore the physical world on all scales, from
the fundamental constituents of matter to the origin, evolution, and fate of
the universe. Though the focus will be on astronomy, related topics in
classical physics, quantum mechanics, religion, music, art, and philosophy will
not be avoided.
No prior background in astronomy or physics is assumed, and math will
be limited to high school algebra and geometry. Students will directly
confront the original writings of the philosophers, scientists, and theologians
studied, and there will be frequent short writing assignments in addition to
one longer paper. Class will meet three times a week for one hour and 20
minutes, with one session held in the evening to allow astronomical
Wolf, F. 1989, Taking the Quantum Leap: The New Physics for
Non-Scientists (Harper & Row: New York).
The story of how we struggled, resisted, and ultimately accepted the modern view of physical reality is beautifully told in this readable account of 20th century physics. We'll use this book primarily in the last third of the course, though the first two chapters will be covered earlier.
Other recommended texts are given in the Reader.
Week 1 (Jan. 31 - Feb. 2):
Topics covered: Introduction/overview; fundamental reality and the role of a Diety.
Readings and activities: Lucretius and Plato handout.
Week 2 (Feb. 5-9):
Inventing Nature's Language
Topics covered: Prehistoric attitudes towards nature; beginnings of
science in Egypt and Mesopotamia;
Ancient Greece - the world of Homer, Hesiod, and the rise
of philosophy; the Ionian School and the question of ultimate reality; unity
behind diversity - numbers (Pythagoras) or atoms (Democritus); love, strife,
and the problem of
change (Zeno's paradoxes); Brief introduction to Epicurean philosophy; notion of
free-will vs. determinism;
the validity of the senses.
Readings and activities: Reader: Hesiod, Lucretius, Heraclitus, Empedocles; Wolf: p. 9-20. Nighttime stargazing, understanding the basic astronomical observations that any theory must explain.
Week 3 (Feb. 12-16): A Theory of Everything
Topics covered: Plato's forms and Eudoxus' spheres; Aristotle's
philosophy of nature: cosmology, change, motion and fundamental causes,
role of the senses, nature of
the soul; the problem of the planets.
Readings and activities: Reader: Plato, Aristotle; Wolf: p. 20-23.
Week 4 (Feb. 19-23): The Power of Prediction
Topics covered: Euclid's deductive reasoning; the Euclidean proofs
of Aristarchus and Archimedes; heliocentric considerations; Ptolemy's epicyclic
Readings and activities: Reader: Euclid, Aristarchus, Archimedes, Ptolemy.
Week 5 (Feb. 26 - March 2 (no class Wednesday)):
Setting the Stage
Topics covered: Astrology in the Middle Ages;
encyclopedists of the Middle Ages -
Pliny the Elder, Martianus Capella; the rise
of Christianity; brief introduction to Islamic science; recovery of Greek
science; rise of radical Aristotelianism; the Copernican
thoughts of Nicole
Readings and activities: Reader: Ptolemy, Pliny, Capella, St.\ Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Boethius of Dacia, Nicole Oresme.
Week 6 (March 5-9): Revolution
Topics covered: Copernicus - the timid Canon, heliocentric hypothesis,
the last Aristotelian; Tycho's schemes and observations; Kepler smashes the
circle - the ellipse, and the Harmony of the Worlds.
Readings and activities: Reader: Copernicus, Kepler; Wolf, p. 25-29.
Week 7 (March 12-16): Newton's Giants
Topics covered: Kepler's Laws; Bruno and the church; Descartes'
quest for certainty; Galileo's world-view - falling bodies,
vacuums, telescopes, and the
nature of science.
Readings and activities: Reader: Kepler, Bruno, Galileo; Wolf: p. 29-37.
First paper (book review) due Wed., March 14.
Week 8 (March 19-23): Spring Break
Topics covered: Matter at rest.
Week 9 (March 26-30): Newton's New Language
- The End of Explanation
Topics covered: The world of genius - introduction to Isaac Newton;
Newton's laws, the Principia, the secret life of an alchemist, the search
for truth and his fundamental reality, theory of light, the immutable nature of
time, theology and spiritualism.
Readings and activities: Reader: Galileo, Newton; Telescopic viewing of sunspots; Wolf: p. 37-46.
Week 10 (April 2-6): Beyond the Planets
Topics covered: Newton's legacy - Laplace's ``nightmare of
determinism''; Speculations on the nature of the nebulae: Kant,
Herschel, Messier; the science of spectroscopy - Kirchoff's Laws and the
fingerprints of the elements; the Doppler effect; time's mushy arrow;
Foucault's pendulum and proof of Earth's motion.
Readings and activities: Reader: Laplace, Abell.
Week 11 (April 9-13): Smashing Certainty
Topics covered: The controversy rages - the Shapley-Curtis debates and
the size of our Universe; return to the fundamental nature of light - Young's
experiment, Maxwell's equations, the search for the ether; Planck's reluctant
explanation; Einstein draws a picture, the photon is born.
Readings and activities: Selected Abell readings. Wolf: p. 46-71.
Week 12 (April 16-20): Inventing a New Language
Topics covered: Bohr takes a quantum leap; a Prince imagines a wave;
the end of pictures - Schroedinger's unimaginable world;
God's dice and uncertainty; a new look at spectroscopy.
Readings and activities: Selected Abell readings. Wolf: p. 72-124.
Week 13 (April 23-27): Finding Our Place in the
Topics covered: The debate ends - Hubble discovers a law, the expanding
universe; looking back to the Big Bang, shadows of creation;
the unity of physics and cosmology. The nature of
observation; Einstein's hidden orders.
Readings and activities: Selected Abell readings. Wolf: p. 124-151.
Week 14 (April 30 - May 4): The End
Topics covered: Supernovae and dark energy; Sisyphean nightmares and
Readings and activities: Reader: Albert Camus.
Final paper due by Wed., May 2.