Evolving World-View of Science

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Course Title, Text, Goals

Course Title: The Evolving World-View of Science(Course Number: PH - 217N)

Text: Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris, HarperCollins

Instructor: H.W. Ellis, Office SHB-101, email: ellishw@eckerd.edu PHONE: (727)-864-8995

This course surveys humanity's conception of the universe: its size, age, composition, and (especially) humanity's place in the grand scheme of things. The connecting thread will be the Ferris text, but we will wander far from that on occasion - exploring in more depth some of the topics that Ferris mentions but does not pursue. The overall goals can be categorized around:

(1) the HISTORY of science and its interaction with culture

(2) the METHODOLOGY which defines what science is: its development and current state

(3) the SUBSTANCE of several important theories (not restricted to physics!)

We will start with the ancient Greek culture, where we will see the origin of what later developed into science. We will try to understand why the Greeks viewed the world as they did, and why it made sense given their knowledge. We will trace the retreat of rationalism after the fall of Rome, and the developments in philosophy and (especially) in observational knowledge through Medieval times: the culmination of the synthesis (by Thomas Aquinas and his followers) of Greek rationalism with Christian doctrine. Then we will examine the re-birth of rationalism and the origins of the scientific methodology, its early successes, its extension beyond physics and astronomy into the biological and social arenas, the overthrow of Newtonian mechanism, and finally the state of modern understanding of science: its workings and limitations.

Hurricane Contingency

Although the Eckerd Campus has never had a "direct hit," we do evacuate any time we come within a 5% probability cone of a hurricane's path, and we evacuate at least 2 days BEFORE the possible impact! Last year (2008) we evacuated for two days in Autumn Term, but not at all in fall semester. In 2005 we evacuated (in September) and in 2004 we evacuated THREE TIMES (twice in August, once in September). All these were for "only" two or three class days, but longer evacuations are certainly possible.

The College intends that, in the case of evacuation, on-going courses are to be completed on-line. While an evacuation of one, two, or three days might be a mere inconvenience, a longer (e.g., several weeks) evacuation requires more extensive planning. For PEL classes, ANY missed classes due to hurricanes will be made up via on-line communication. WHEN YOU EVACUATE:

1. Take your computer, textbook, and course materials with you.

2. When you are "settled" go on-line to this Wiki Site

3. Instructions will be given over this site and/or over your Eckerd Web e-mail, which will remain in operation through an off-campus (California!) site. In all likelihood (and depending on exactly where we are in the course) we will simply treat the course as an "independent study," following this same syllabus (see below). More detailed instructions may be sent via email, which can also be used for your specific questions and my responding answers.


The course grade will be based on a maximum point total of 700 apportioned as follows:

Homework: 200

Take-Home Final Exam: 150

TWO (Short) Research Papers: @100 = 200

Presentation of 2nd Paper: 50

Attendance & Participation: 200

Chapter Questions

From Chapter 1:

1. Ferris writes that in tracking the changing positions of some planets among the stars from night to night, "planets occasionally stop in their tracks and move backward - in ‘retrograde'" Explain, from our modern perspective, why this happens. (A diagram might be helpful.)

2. What phrase was inscribed above the door to Plato's Academy in ancient Athens?

3. The ancient model of the cosmos was begun by Eudoxus and "perfected" by Ptolemy. Describe the major features of this model, especially the "epicycles" added by Ptolemy.

4. Explain what is meant by the phrase "to save the appearances?"


From Chapter 2:

1. Describe events surrounding the death of Archimedes.

2. Ferris writes that the rise of early Christianity did not favor the development of Greek philosophy. Why?

3. Who was Hypatia and how did her death symbolize the decline of Greek learning?


From Chapter 3:

1. According to Ferris, how did European life and culture compare with that of China around the time of Marco Polo's travels (1276 CE)?

2. Ferris writes that the argument Columbus made to Queen Isabella "was not that the earth was round - every educated person knew that - but that it was small." Why was this important?

3. Briefly describe the life of Columbus from the time of his "discovery" of the new world until his death.


From Chapter 4:

1. Ferris claims that the Copernican sun-centered universe was, in many respects, no better than the Ptolemaic earth-centered model. Explain.

2. WHY was the appearance of the two supernovae in 1572 and 1604 so shocking to those who had inherited Aristotle's view of the universe?

3. Describe Kepler's great "breakthrough" which made him write "I have the answer," and after which, Ferris writes, "Now everything worked."


From Chapter 5:

1. Describe Galileo's relationship with the telescope!

2. Describe Galileo's relationship with Kepler.

3. Describe (briefly) Galileo's relationship with the Church.


From Chapter 6:

1. Ferris calls Isaac Newton "one of the strangest and most remotely inaccessible individuals who ever lived." Explain.

2. Describe the role that Edmund Halley (of "Halley's comet" fame) played in getting Newton's work known.


From Chapter 7:

1. Explain how "parallax" or "triangulation" can be used to measure the distance to extraterrestrial objects that are not "too far" away.

2. What is meant by the "transit" of a planet (either Mercury or Venus) and why was it of interest in the 18th century?


From Chapter 8:

1. Explain the mis-understanding of a proposed model of the universe which led Immanuel Kant to (correctly) speculate about the structure of the Milky Way galaxy!

2. Describe some of the notable achievements of the astronomer William Herschel.


From Chapter 9:

Briefly, how did each of the following contribute to the understanding of the universe: 1. Joseph Fraunhofer

2. Henrietta Swan Leavitt

3. Edwin Hubble


From Chapter 10:

1. Describe a few of the "problems" with scientific understanding in 1900 that led Einstein to invent the theory of "special" relativity.

2. A universe that was infinitely large, containing an infinite number of stars leads to a problem called "Olbers's paradox." What is this?


From Chapter 11:

1. Describe briefly "Hubble's Law" and explain its implication.

2. What is meant by "cosmic background radiation?"

3. Summarize the three major sources of evidence that Ferris says (on p. 214) supports the "expansion of the universe."


From Chapter 12:

1. Explain "catastrophism" and "uniformitarianism" and why the latter requires the earth to be extremely old.


From Chapter 13:

1. Summarize Darwin's "three premises and a conclusion" which constitute his theory of natural selection.

2. Lord Kelvin "calculated that the sun, releasing heat by virtue of gravitational contraction, could not have been shining for more than five hundred million years." But today, we believe the sun to be about five billion (i.e., five thousand million) years old. What do we know that Kelvin did not?


From Chapter 14:

1. Sketch a "Hertzsprung-Russell Diagram," with labeled axes and the major groupings of stars: ("main sequence," "giants," "supergiants," "white dwarfs."

2. Elements heavier than iron (i.e., with more than 26 protons in the nucleus) cannot be created from fusion in the usual way. Where does Ferris say these "heavy" elements come from?


From Chapter 15:

1. Describe how the "fundamental constant of nature" usually symbolized by the letter h came to enter science, and its relationship to the "uncertainty principle."

2. What was the implication of quantum theory that Einstein refused to accept?

3. What fundamental differences exist between the two categories of particles "fermions" and "bosons?"

4. Ferris states that "Gravitation remains the odd man out." Explain.


From Chapter 16:

Summarize briefly the major contributions toward understanding the universe made by:

1. Emmy Noether

2. C. N. Yang

3. Sheldon Glashow, Abdus Salam, and Stephen Weinberg

4. Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer


From Chapter 17:

Ferris writes about the climb up the lighthouse steps (a la the videotape). He imagines a Clock that starts at the beginning of time. He imagines that each step upward turns the Clock back to 1/10 its previous reading, with step one: 1 billion years ABT, step 2: 100 million years ABT, step 3: 10 million years ABT, and so forth. (ABT = "After the Beginning of Time). What key events occur at approximately the following times, according to current theories:

(a) 1 million years ABT

(b) 10-6 seconds ABT (0.000001 sec)

(c) 10-11 seconds ABT (0.000 000 000 01 sec)

(d) 10-35 seconds ABT (0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 01 sec)

(e) 10-43 seconds ABT (0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1 sec)


From Chapter 18:

The chapter is titled "The Origin of the Universe." Write a SHORT paragraph about the contributions of each of the following:

1. Edward Tryon

2. Alan Guth

3. Stephen Hawking

4. John Archibald Wheeler


From Chapter 19:

Part of the "search for extraterrestrial intelligence" (SETI) is an attempt to estimate the likelihood that it exists. One such attempt, formulated by astronomer Frank Drake (mentioned by Ferris on p. 372) is to calculate the probable number of earth-like planets in the galaxy, and then the likely number of technological civilizations. The result is known as "the Drake equation."

Look up this equation on the internet (you can Google it). Explain what each term refers to, and explain how the equation is used.


From Chapter 20:

1. Comment on the relevance (to modern science's understanding of the universe) of Rene Magritte's painting of a pipe accompanied by the caption "This is not a pipe." This painting is easily found on the internet.

2. Comment on Einstein's observation that "the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible."