How to teach science classically

Last week’s post about teaching mathematics classically provoked some excellent comments.  Here is one of mine, responding to the question of why the liberal arts include astronomy and not physics, biology, chemistery, etc.:

Great, helpful, and important comments! Classical educators–here are some splendid ideas. Run with them.

Webmonk and Peter, chemistry, physics, biology, etc., WERE taught in classical schools and universities (such as Oxford and Cambridge). They are not liberal arts–which deal with processes and skills–but they come under the liberal sciences (the word literally meaning “knowledge), specifically, Natural Science. (The others are Moral Science [knowledge of Man, including history, law, the humanities, etc.], and Theological Science [the knowledge of God, theology being the "Queen of the Sciences," in the sense of comprehending the source of all of the others.)

Astronomy as an "art" teaches empirical observation to which is applied mathematical analysis. As such, it teaches the conceptual "art" necessary in those other sciences.

I guess I should next post something asking how to teach the natural sciences classically!

So now I will do so. Realize, everyone, that classical education includes both the [liberal] arts and the [liberal sciences. The ART of Astronomy applies mathematics to observations. The SCIENCE of Astronomy has to do with all that stuff Webmonk is talking about (the nature of stars, blackholes, etc.).

Progressive education has always claimed to be scientific--privileging science against all other kinds of knowledge--so the irony now is that the current educational approaches are doing such a terrible job of teaching science, as nearly everyone admits. This academic crisis also sounds like a job for classical education! (Certainly many of the greatest scientists, from the original pioneers through 19th century Oxford grads and even including a number of modern theoretical physicists [such as Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg] had the foundation of a classical education.)

So how should classical educators teach the natural sciences?

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About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://geochristian.wordpress.com/ Kevin N

    One strength of classical education is a stronger historical emphasis than what is found in other forms of learning. In science, a greater emphasis can be placed on the historical development of scientific theories. As a science teacher in a classical school, I took the class through the geocentrism vs. heliocentrism controversy. I started with a debate: me against them. I took the geocentric (Earth-centered universe) side, and they were to convince me that the foolish idea that Earth goes around the sun was true. I think I won the initial debate. After a week of going through Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo, they had a much greater understanding of why we now believe the sun is at the center of the solar system than if I had just taught them. It was helpful to use an astronomy program on the computer and have them plot the motions of the planets through the sky from night to night so they could see how Copernicus explained the retrograde motion Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

    In terms of experimentation, It may be more important that students be able to describe some of the great experiments done in the past than to do many of the exercises found in lab manuals. For example, in chemistry they ought to be able to describe J.J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron using a cathode ray tube, or Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus. Yes, there is a role for students actually doing experiments, but it is best to avoid “cookbook” chemistry and physics.

    Too often, the objectives of science education in any Christian school are to 1. bash evolution, and 2. bash environmentalism. This can amount to brainwashing rather than true education.

  • http://geochristian.wordpress.com/ Kevin N

    One strength of classical education is a stronger historical emphasis than what is found in other forms of learning. In science, a greater emphasis can be placed on the historical development of scientific theories. As a science teacher in a classical school, I took the class through the geocentrism vs. heliocentrism controversy. I started with a debate: me against them. I took the geocentric (Earth-centered universe) side, and they were to convince me that the foolish idea that Earth goes around the sun was true. I think I won the initial debate. After a week of going through Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Galileo, they had a much greater understanding of why we now believe the sun is at the center of the solar system than if I had just taught them. It was helpful to use an astronomy program on the computer and have them plot the motions of the planets through the sky from night to night so they could see how Copernicus explained the retrograde motion Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn.

    In terms of experimentation, It may be more important that students be able to describe some of the great experiments done in the past than to do many of the exercises found in lab manuals. For example, in chemistry they ought to be able to describe J.J. Thomson’s discovery of the electron using a cathode ray tube, or Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the nucleus. Yes, there is a role for students actually doing experiments, but it is best to avoid “cookbook” chemistry and physics.

    Too often, the objectives of science education in any Christian school are to 1. bash evolution, and 2. bash environmentalism. This can amount to brainwashing rather than true education.

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    Reply to Kevin M. You can actually go even further (and possibly farther!) with the geocentrist/heliocentrist debate. According to the theory of general relativity, there is no preferred reference frame, inertial or otherwise. Therefore, you can’t actually speak about the earth revolving around the sun. You might as well say that the sun revolves around the earth! It might be more accurate to say that according to our measurements, the sun and the earth revolve around their mutual center-of-mass.

    I agree with you that bashing evolution and environmentalism should not be the goal of a science program, although some debunking is probably in order.

    However, in this debate, the general relativity dimension I have just mentioned is a great way to catch atheists up short, at least the ones who make fun of geocentrists as being behind the times. And again, that’s not to say that the be-all and end-all is to be up-to-date, like Eustace’s parents Harold and Alberta.

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    Reply to Kevin M. You can actually go even further (and possibly farther!) with the geocentrist/heliocentrist debate. According to the theory of general relativity, there is no preferred reference frame, inertial or otherwise. Therefore, you can’t actually speak about the earth revolving around the sun. You might as well say that the sun revolves around the earth! It might be more accurate to say that according to our measurements, the sun and the earth revolve around their mutual center-of-mass.

    I agree with you that bashing evolution and environmentalism should not be the goal of a science program, although some debunking is probably in order.

    However, in this debate, the general relativity dimension I have just mentioned is a great way to catch atheists up short, at least the ones who make fun of geocentrists as being behind the times. And again, that’s not to say that the be-all and end-all is to be up-to-date, like Eustace’s parents Harold and Alberta.

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    My apologies if this post appears more than once. It has not seemed to stick.

    I would refer to my comments on teaching mathematics classically when it comes to a methodology. However, in addition, I would point out several things.

    1. I think it a good idea to have physics and math, at least, tightly integrated (pun intended). I think of my father in his undergraduate engineering physics program at Cornell. He has told me that one week he’d learn something in the math class, and a week later he’d use it in the physics class. To generalize, it would be fantastic if we could think of a way to get all the sciences we want to teach talking to each other in this fashion. In cC schools, this sort of unification has been achieved to a great extent already in the humanities. I see no reason, other than the difficulty and being out-of-practice, for doing the same in the sciences. Going even further, the sciences and the humanities seem not to be on speaking terms these days, even in cC schools. And why not? Is it not true that science might have something to say about how Napolean died? And is it not true that theology might have something to say about the evil known as embryonic stem cell research?

    2. I believe the rhetoric of science has been sadly neglected. One book that has significantly influenced me on this, and which, I would add, might be good for profitable study in the rhetoric of science, is N. David Mermin’s Boojums All the Way Through. Mermin is passionate about recovering good writing in physics, but of course, his comments apply to any of the sciences, and even good writing in general. Improving the writing style of scientists (in the process ditching the abominable passive voice that scientists love, probably in order to perpetuate the myth of objectivity, as well as unexplained jargon no doubt used to mystify the beginner or anyone not well-versed in the tiny field in which the author is writing) would be a very good step towards improving science education in general. As I mentioned in my comments on teaching mathematics classically, the lack of good rhetoric can have severe consequences, as when the Challenger blew up.

    3. Related to the above two points, and looking at industry, I can say, from my experience, that what is needed in industry, at least, is not more specialists, but more generalists. If you’ve got someone who can not only learn what he needs on the fly, but can present the solution to a problem in a cogent, clear manner, and has an honest, upright character, then you’ve got yourself a valuable employee.

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    My apologies if this post appears more than once. It has not seemed to stick.

    I would refer to my comments on teaching mathematics classically when it comes to a methodology. However, in addition, I would point out several things.

    1. I think it a good idea to have physics and math, at least, tightly integrated (pun intended). I think of my father in his undergraduate engineering physics program at Cornell. He has told me that one week he’d learn something in the math class, and a week later he’d use it in the physics class. To generalize, it would be fantastic if we could think of a way to get all the sciences we want to teach talking to each other in this fashion. In cC schools, this sort of unification has been achieved to a great extent already in the humanities. I see no reason, other than the difficulty and being out-of-practice, for doing the same in the sciences. Going even further, the sciences and the humanities seem not to be on speaking terms these days, even in cC schools. And why not? Is it not true that science might have something to say about how Napolean died? And is it not true that theology might have something to say about the evil known as embryonic stem cell research?

    2. I believe the rhetoric of science has been sadly neglected. One book that has significantly influenced me on this, and which, I would add, might be good for profitable study in the rhetoric of science, is N. David Mermin’s Boojums All the Way Through. Mermin is passionate about recovering good writing in physics, but of course, his comments apply to any of the sciences, and even good writing in general. Improving the writing style of scientists (in the process ditching the abominable passive voice that scientists love, probably in order to perpetuate the myth of objectivity, as well as unexplained jargon no doubt used to mystify the beginner or anyone not well-versed in the tiny field in which the author is writing) would be a very good step towards improving science education in general. As I mentioned in my comments on teaching mathematics classically, the lack of good rhetoric can have severe consequences, as when the Challenger blew up.

    3. Related to the above two points, and looking at industry, I can say, from my experience, that what is needed in industry, at least, is not more specialists, but more generalists. If you’ve got someone who can not only learn what he needs on the fly, but can present the solution to a problem in a cogent, clear manner, and has an honest, upright character, then you’ve got yourself a valuable employee.

  • fws

    there should be a strong emphasis on empiricism.

    here is the educational division of law and gospel. in the earthly kingdom we deal with everything physical, bodily, carnal, fleshly, touchable, provable. This is about all things useful to make the creaturely life of others better. This is the kingdom of love. discipline + actions = love.

    in the heavenly kingdom, only invisible faith is what counts and makes us a christian. further, this kind of invisible righteousness is utterly useless in the physical realm. it matters really only to God and to calm our troubled conscience. This is the kingdom of Love. God´s action in Incarnate Form. That Love that, without which, the earth would cease to spin and the stars would fall from the sky. Not a discipline. A Person.

  • fws

    there should be a strong emphasis on empiricism.

    here is the educational division of law and gospel. in the earthly kingdom we deal with everything physical, bodily, carnal, fleshly, touchable, provable. This is about all things useful to make the creaturely life of others better. This is the kingdom of love. discipline + actions = love.

    in the heavenly kingdom, only invisible faith is what counts and makes us a christian. further, this kind of invisible righteousness is utterly useless in the physical realm. it matters really only to God and to calm our troubled conscience. This is the kingdom of Love. God´s action in Incarnate Form. That Love that, without which, the earth would cease to spin and the stars would fall from the sky. Not a discipline. A Person.

  • WebMonk

    Adrien, I don’t think you understand what Relativity is.

    There’s no way in which Relativity says the Sun revolves around the Earth. The Earth-Sun center of gravity of which you speak, is quite divorced from the effects of relativity.

    “However, in this debate, the general relativity dimension I have just mentioned is a great way to catch atheists up short” – I have no doubt you catch people up short by saying something like that. They’re absolutely stunned all right, but not in a good way.

  • WebMonk

    Adrien, I don’t think you understand what Relativity is.

    There’s no way in which Relativity says the Sun revolves around the Earth. The Earth-Sun center of gravity of which you speak, is quite divorced from the effects of relativity.

    “However, in this debate, the general relativity dimension I have just mentioned is a great way to catch atheists up short” – I have no doubt you catch people up short by saying something like that. They’re absolutely stunned all right, but not in a good way.

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    Reply to WebMonk.

    You would be correct in saying that I don’t fully understand what relativity is. I never took a course in general relativity, though I did finish a PhD in mathematical physics. My father once asked an expert in General Relativity (hereby abbreviated GR) if it would be just as correct to say that the sun revolved around the earth, as to say that the earth revolved around the sun. And the expert replied that, due to the fact that there is no preferred reference frame whatever, that was a correct statement.

    I’m not saying that the earth revolving around the sun is a main result of GR, or even that GR has even explicitly stated this idea. The expert my father questioned about the issue seemed a bit stunned at the logical implication of GR that my father put to him, but he absolutely acknowledged it as a result. I don’t doubt that the geocentricity/heliocentricity debate has been largely ignored by GR practitioners.

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    Reply to WebMonk.

    You would be correct in saying that I don’t fully understand what relativity is. I never took a course in general relativity, though I did finish a PhD in mathematical physics. My father once asked an expert in General Relativity (hereby abbreviated GR) if it would be just as correct to say that the sun revolved around the earth, as to say that the earth revolved around the sun. And the expert replied that, due to the fact that there is no preferred reference frame whatever, that was a correct statement.

    I’m not saying that the earth revolving around the sun is a main result of GR, or even that GR has even explicitly stated this idea. The expert my father questioned about the issue seemed a bit stunned at the logical implication of GR that my father put to him, but he absolutely acknowledged it as a result. I don’t doubt that the geocentricity/heliocentricity debate has been largely ignored by GR practitioners.

  • Rev. Alexander Ring

    One difficulty in a classical approach to science is determining what the “grammar” of science is. It is a question not quite as easily answered as it is with Math or Reading, probably because the grammar changes (How many planets, again?).

  • Rev. Alexander Ring

    One difficulty in a classical approach to science is determining what the “grammar” of science is. It is a question not quite as easily answered as it is with Math or Reading, probably because the grammar changes (How many planets, again?).

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’ll admit to being confused by the mildly archaic distinction between “arts” and “sciences” here, but it occurs to me that teaching scientific topics (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.) as merely “knowledge” (“science”) and not as a “skill” (“art”) misses the most important part of what is today called science. And that is the scientific method.

    Too often, science is merely taught as a collection of facts that somehow just appeared. (Actually, this is true of how math can be taught, as well.) And if experiments are done in a lab setting, they aren’t, in any meaningful sense, experiments. That is, no question is being answered. Usually, the goal is to duplicate a known answer, to verify an equation or number that was already given by the teacher as correct.

    And what you get is a bunch of kids who know next to nothing about science. Oh, sure, they know facts. But they couldn’t tell you how those facts were obtained, and they certainly couldn’t obtain them themselves.

    I haven’t done a good job of explaining myself here, but the scientific method as an “art” is definitely lacking in many of the approaches I’ve seen to science education. Oh sure, there’ll be a chapter on it, but again, it’s treated like a set of rules handed down, the kids memorize however many steps the book says are in the “official method”, and then they move on, never to actually use the method themselves. They don’t know how to question and verify things themselves, or even that they can.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’ll admit to being confused by the mildly archaic distinction between “arts” and “sciences” here, but it occurs to me that teaching scientific topics (chemistry, biology, physics, etc.) as merely “knowledge” (“science”) and not as a “skill” (“art”) misses the most important part of what is today called science. And that is the scientific method.

    Too often, science is merely taught as a collection of facts that somehow just appeared. (Actually, this is true of how math can be taught, as well.) And if experiments are done in a lab setting, they aren’t, in any meaningful sense, experiments. That is, no question is being answered. Usually, the goal is to duplicate a known answer, to verify an equation or number that was already given by the teacher as correct.

    And what you get is a bunch of kids who know next to nothing about science. Oh, sure, they know facts. But they couldn’t tell you how those facts were obtained, and they certainly couldn’t obtain them themselves.

    I haven’t done a good job of explaining myself here, but the scientific method as an “art” is definitely lacking in many of the approaches I’ve seen to science education. Oh sure, there’ll be a chapter on it, but again, it’s treated like a set of rules handed down, the kids memorize however many steps the book says are in the “official method”, and then they move on, never to actually use the method themselves. They don’t know how to question and verify things themselves, or even that they can.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 7: I think you’ ve explained yourself very well, and made an excellent point. While demonstrating known physical laws and concepts is a good exercise, there needs to be an opportunity for students to use the knowledge they have gained to hypothesize, and then to design an experiment to test the hypothesis. Science fairs sometimes offer an opportunity to engage in the scientific method in this manner, but many students don’t participate, and those that do often treat the project as more of a report than an experiment, and never engage in analysis using the scientific method.

  • DonS

    tODD @ 7: I think you’ ve explained yourself very well, and made an excellent point. While demonstrating known physical laws and concepts is a good exercise, there needs to be an opportunity for students to use the knowledge they have gained to hypothesize, and then to design an experiment to test the hypothesis. Science fairs sometimes offer an opportunity to engage in the scientific method in this manner, but many students don’t participate, and those that do often treat the project as more of a report than an experiment, and never engage in analysis using the scientific method.

  • DonS

    I agree with Kevin N.’s point @ 1. Historical perspective regarding the development of science would be valuable for students. For one thing, they would have better context as to the authority of science today, by seeing that science is ever growing in knowledge, and many theories historically have turned out to be entirely wrong or incomplete. They would understand that theories are developed for the purpose of directing research and study, and not to be treated as fact or settled before they are fully confirmed. Hopefully, such context would help us as a society to get away from the idea that if a scientist says it, it must be true.

    With such historical knowledge, as well, Christians could avoid the practice of simply bashing scientific theories such as evolution or climate change, without scientific evidence, but could argue intelligently concerning the evidence holes in those theories, remind people that theories are often found ultimately to be wrong or incomplete, and assist in designing further experiments and data collection to either prove or disprove them.

  • DonS

    I agree with Kevin N.’s point @ 1. Historical perspective regarding the development of science would be valuable for students. For one thing, they would have better context as to the authority of science today, by seeing that science is ever growing in knowledge, and many theories historically have turned out to be entirely wrong or incomplete. They would understand that theories are developed for the purpose of directing research and study, and not to be treated as fact or settled before they are fully confirmed. Hopefully, such context would help us as a society to get away from the idea that if a scientist says it, it must be true.

    With such historical knowledge, as well, Christians could avoid the practice of simply bashing scientific theories such as evolution or climate change, without scientific evidence, but could argue intelligently concerning the evidence holes in those theories, remind people that theories are often found ultimately to be wrong or incomplete, and assist in designing further experiments and data collection to either prove or disprove them.

  • WebMonk

    Adrian, I have no idea what exactly your father asked, who he asked, what the details of the reply were, and then how they were summarized and abbreviated in being passed on to you, but there is no way that GR can say the sun could be seen to revolve around the earth – that is fundamentally an incompatible question with GR.

    I’ve just tried a few different ways to concisely explain it, and I can’t do it simplistically enough – it’s like saying Newton’s Law of Gravity means you can substitute “balloon” for “the” in a sentence and have it mean the same thing.

    The fact that GR shows there is no preferred frame of reference has exactly that much effect on saying the sun can be treated as orbiting the earth. The two statements are in different sets.

    GR’s no preferred frame has zero interaction with the frame of reference of the sun orbiting the earth or vice versa other than using similar words – totally different concepts are behind the words.

  • WebMonk

    Adrian, I have no idea what exactly your father asked, who he asked, what the details of the reply were, and then how they were summarized and abbreviated in being passed on to you, but there is no way that GR can say the sun could be seen to revolve around the earth – that is fundamentally an incompatible question with GR.

    I’ve just tried a few different ways to concisely explain it, and I can’t do it simplistically enough – it’s like saying Newton’s Law of Gravity means you can substitute “balloon” for “the” in a sentence and have it mean the same thing.

    The fact that GR shows there is no preferred frame of reference has exactly that much effect on saying the sun can be treated as orbiting the earth. The two statements are in different sets.

    GR’s no preferred frame has zero interaction with the frame of reference of the sun orbiting the earth or vice versa other than using similar words – totally different concepts are behind the words.

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    Reply to WebMonk @ 10.

    Since, as I have previously acknowledged, I am no expert in GR, I have little basis to critique your statements, other than to challenge you to produce your sources/authorities as I did mine. You apparently didn’t think my sources were authoritative; ergo, you must have your own sources that you regard as superior. So, as you can see, this is not a rhetorical question, but a genuine question: on what are you basing your assertions?

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    Reply to WebMonk @ 10.

    Since, as I have previously acknowledged, I am no expert in GR, I have little basis to critique your statements, other than to challenge you to produce your sources/authorities as I did mine. You apparently didn’t think my sources were authoritative; ergo, you must have your own sources that you regard as superior. So, as you can see, this is not a rhetorical question, but a genuine question: on what are you basing your assertions?

  • http://geochristian.wordpress.com/ Kevin N

    I am an Earth scientist, not a physicist, so I am no expert on relativity. My understanding is that one could make geocentrism work mathematically in a non-relativistic universe. Distant stars and galaxies would have to be orbiting the Earth at astounding velocities—let’s just call it gazillions of kilometers per nanosecond—and the planets would have to be on epicycles upon epicycles upon epicycles. The whole thing gets extremely cumbersome, which was why Copernicus and Galileo triumphed over Ptolemy.

    I think it was the Bob Jones University Press catalog that had a book advocating geocentrism on it’s front page a few years ago. Not that BJUP is classical, but then again there is no source for classical science so a lot of classical homeschoolers buy from what I call the “big three” of Christian science curriculum providers: Bob Jones, Abeka, and Apologia. None of these companies produce anything that remotely approaches what we are talking about here.

  • http://geochristian.wordpress.com/ Kevin N

    I am an Earth scientist, not a physicist, so I am no expert on relativity. My understanding is that one could make geocentrism work mathematically in a non-relativistic universe. Distant stars and galaxies would have to be orbiting the Earth at astounding velocities—let’s just call it gazillions of kilometers per nanosecond—and the planets would have to be on epicycles upon epicycles upon epicycles. The whole thing gets extremely cumbersome, which was why Copernicus and Galileo triumphed over Ptolemy.

    I think it was the Bob Jones University Press catalog that had a book advocating geocentrism on it’s front page a few years ago. Not that BJUP is classical, but then again there is no source for classical science so a lot of classical homeschoolers buy from what I call the “big three” of Christian science curriculum providers: Bob Jones, Abeka, and Apologia. None of these companies produce anything that remotely approaches what we are talking about here.

  • http://geochristian.wordpress.com/ Kevin N

    I am working on a comprehensive Earth Science curriculum that I think will be in line with classical education principles. It will be a few years before it is ready.

  • http://geochristian.wordpress.com/ Kevin N

    I am working on a comprehensive Earth Science curriculum that I think will be in line with classical education principles. It will be a few years before it is ready.

  • WebMonk

    That was part of my problem trying to write a comment – how to describe what relativity is in just a couple paragraphs. I’ll attempt here, but I would have to point to any college level textbook. I’ll see if I can find some online resources, but I’m afraid they’re all going to be small-book-length, not something to quickly summarize.

    Let’s start with special relativity because it’s simpler. It can be summed up as saying the speed of light is constant regardless of the observer’s or the source’s uniform movement. Rephrased to use the terms being confused here, “the speed of light is the same in all uniformly moving frames of reference”. The “uniformly moving” is the “special” part of it – it’s basically describing something in “free fall” or something that is not being affected by gravity or acceleration.

    Special relativity is indeed special in that it only dealt with uniform movement in relation to each other. General relativity is a much more complex permutation, but one which answers the same sort of issue. Instead of only dealing with a constant movement (movement without outside forces such as gravity and acceleration), it deals with changing movement – acceleration and gravity. It is a general application, general in the sense that it applies to all situations rather than just the specific (special) situation of objects in uniform movement.

    The reason that this is such a big deal is how the solution came out – gravity as a geometric property of space. The General Theory of Relativity is largely a theory of gravity. It could be summed up as saying there is no preferred frame of reference, period, in which the laws of physics (summarized as the speed of light) hold true.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re in a gravity well (like Earth’s), accelerating in a rocket, or scooting along at .99c, the laws of physics are constant even though we see different effects. The GToR gives the underlying explanation of how the laws of physics are the same even though we see different effects.

    We can be on the moon and watch a rock drop at 1.6m/s^2 or we can be on a rocket ship accelerating at 5G and watch a rock drop to the floor at almost 50m/s^2. We see very different effects, but the laws are the same – there is no privileged frame of reference in which we can say “this is the frame of reference where the laws of physics are correct”.

    There is no “preferred frame of reference”.

    This is a completely different question from whether we can interchangeably use the point of view of the earth orbiting the sun (and I think you mean the earth spinning about its axis, not the motion of the earth orbiting the sun) or the sun orbiting the earth.

    [Don't take this summary as a complete description of GR; there is a LOT of imprecision in what I said, but hopefully it's enough to give a very general concept of what GR is about.]

    As to good sources on the Internet, there’s always Wikipedia. I just checked it out and its pretty solid, and if the main article is too detailed, they have a nice “Intro” page. I can’t find my old course books (I think I would recognize their covers, but I can’t remember the titles), but a friend mentioned a book he is using in teaching his class – “A First Course in General Relativity”. I haven’t looked at it myself, but he had mentioned he liked it a lot. I think his class is a 300-400 level undergrad class intended for astronomy majors with a fair bit of math, but he’s not really a math teacher, so I’m guessing the math wouldn’t be much more than vector calculus type level.

  • WebMonk

    That was part of my problem trying to write a comment – how to describe what relativity is in just a couple paragraphs. I’ll attempt here, but I would have to point to any college level textbook. I’ll see if I can find some online resources, but I’m afraid they’re all going to be small-book-length, not something to quickly summarize.

    Let’s start with special relativity because it’s simpler. It can be summed up as saying the speed of light is constant regardless of the observer’s or the source’s uniform movement. Rephrased to use the terms being confused here, “the speed of light is the same in all uniformly moving frames of reference”. The “uniformly moving” is the “special” part of it – it’s basically describing something in “free fall” or something that is not being affected by gravity or acceleration.

    Special relativity is indeed special in that it only dealt with uniform movement in relation to each other. General relativity is a much more complex permutation, but one which answers the same sort of issue. Instead of only dealing with a constant movement (movement without outside forces such as gravity and acceleration), it deals with changing movement – acceleration and gravity. It is a general application, general in the sense that it applies to all situations rather than just the specific (special) situation of objects in uniform movement.

    The reason that this is such a big deal is how the solution came out – gravity as a geometric property of space. The General Theory of Relativity is largely a theory of gravity. It could be summed up as saying there is no preferred frame of reference, period, in which the laws of physics (summarized as the speed of light) hold true.

    It doesn’t matter if you’re in a gravity well (like Earth’s), accelerating in a rocket, or scooting along at .99c, the laws of physics are constant even though we see different effects. The GToR gives the underlying explanation of how the laws of physics are the same even though we see different effects.

    We can be on the moon and watch a rock drop at 1.6m/s^2 or we can be on a rocket ship accelerating at 5G and watch a rock drop to the floor at almost 50m/s^2. We see very different effects, but the laws are the same – there is no privileged frame of reference in which we can say “this is the frame of reference where the laws of physics are correct”.

    There is no “preferred frame of reference”.

    This is a completely different question from whether we can interchangeably use the point of view of the earth orbiting the sun (and I think you mean the earth spinning about its axis, not the motion of the earth orbiting the sun) or the sun orbiting the earth.

    [Don't take this summary as a complete description of GR; there is a LOT of imprecision in what I said, but hopefully it's enough to give a very general concept of what GR is about.]

    As to good sources on the Internet, there’s always Wikipedia. I just checked it out and its pretty solid, and if the main article is too detailed, they have a nice “Intro” page. I can’t find my old course books (I think I would recognize their covers, but I can’t remember the titles), but a friend mentioned a book he is using in teaching his class – “A First Course in General Relativity”. I haven’t looked at it myself, but he had mentioned he liked it a lot. I think his class is a 300-400 level undergrad class intended for astronomy majors with a fair bit of math, but he’s not really a math teacher, so I’m guessing the math wouldn’t be much more than vector calculus type level.

  • WebMonk

    I checked back and saw I mis-typed something above. I should have written

    “It could be summed up as saying there is no preferred frame of reference, period, in which the laws of physics (summarized as the speed of light) hold true.”

    as

    “It could be summed up as saying there is no preferred frame of reference, period, in which the laws of physics (summarized as the speed of light) are any more or less correct.”

  • WebMonk

    I checked back and saw I mis-typed something above. I should have written

    “It could be summed up as saying there is no preferred frame of reference, period, in which the laws of physics (summarized as the speed of light) hold true.”

    as

    “It could be summed up as saying there is no preferred frame of reference, period, in which the laws of physics (summarized as the speed of light) are any more or less correct.”

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    Reply to WebMonk.

    I checked back with my father. He wrote back the following, and I quote:

    The way I worded the question to the “expert” is this: If there are no preferred coordinate systems according to general relativity, does this not mean that there are no ways to make a measurement which would show that one system is at rest and another system revolves around it? Martin Gardner (of Scientific American) put an extreme case this way: Let us say that a person kicks a stone. Gardner indicated that there was no way one could (by a measurement) distinguish between that kind of description of what happened from that of having the entire universe revolve around that person’s knee and foot, generating a gravitational field which would attract the stone and drive it into the person’s foot with great force. After reading this, I concluded that the same could be said about Earth revolving around the Sun and vice versa. Recalling Karl Popper’s definition of a scientific statement (i.e., a statement which is not in principle falsifiable by an observable measurement is unscientific), I concluded that the statement “The Earth revolves around the Sun” is, if GR is correct, an unscientific statement. It was this argument I put forth to the “expert” in question, who ended up agreeing with me at the time.

    All the arguments about “ease of calculation”, simplicity of analysis, beauty of the system, etc. are of no avail. The question boils down to one of the truth of the matter. Can one say, with scientific certainty, that the Earth revolves around the Sun if, as GR implies, there are no preferred gravitational/accelerational systems? It seems to me one cannot. Mind you, I am certainly more comfortable with the notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun. But my comfort index cannot be used as a tool for establishing the truth of the matter.

    I would not call myself a geocentrist; nor, after reading this from my father, would I call myself a heliocentrist. Thinking of the sun as the center of the solar system does seem to make the calculations simpler (though my father points out that philosophically this is irrelevant).

    WebMonk, I will not post another comment on this blog post as regards relativity. What I really wanted to do was post about teaching science, but for some reason this blog ate my post, and though I tried several times to post it, it didn’t happen. My comments along those lines were about the relationships between the sciences and mathematics and the humanities, especially theology, the teaching of real experimental science, and others.

    In Christ.

  • http://www.cumberlandisland.blogspot.com Adrian Keister

    Reply to WebMonk.

    I checked back with my father. He wrote back the following, and I quote:

    The way I worded the question to the “expert” is this: If there are no preferred coordinate systems according to general relativity, does this not mean that there are no ways to make a measurement which would show that one system is at rest and another system revolves around it? Martin Gardner (of Scientific American) put an extreme case this way: Let us say that a person kicks a stone. Gardner indicated that there was no way one could (by a measurement) distinguish between that kind of description of what happened from that of having the entire universe revolve around that person’s knee and foot, generating a gravitational field which would attract the stone and drive it into the person’s foot with great force. After reading this, I concluded that the same could be said about Earth revolving around the Sun and vice versa. Recalling Karl Popper’s definition of a scientific statement (i.e., a statement which is not in principle falsifiable by an observable measurement is unscientific), I concluded that the statement “The Earth revolves around the Sun” is, if GR is correct, an unscientific statement. It was this argument I put forth to the “expert” in question, who ended up agreeing with me at the time.

    All the arguments about “ease of calculation”, simplicity of analysis, beauty of the system, etc. are of no avail. The question boils down to one of the truth of the matter. Can one say, with scientific certainty, that the Earth revolves around the Sun if, as GR implies, there are no preferred gravitational/accelerational systems? It seems to me one cannot. Mind you, I am certainly more comfortable with the notion that the Earth revolves around the Sun. But my comfort index cannot be used as a tool for establishing the truth of the matter.

    I would not call myself a geocentrist; nor, after reading this from my father, would I call myself a heliocentrist. Thinking of the sun as the center of the solar system does seem to make the calculations simpler (though my father points out that philosophically this is irrelevant).

    WebMonk, I will not post another comment on this blog post as regards relativity. What I really wanted to do was post about teaching science, but for some reason this blog ate my post, and though I tried several times to post it, it didn’t happen. My comments along those lines were about the relationships between the sciences and mathematics and the humanities, especially theology, the teaching of real experimental science, and others.

    In Christ.


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