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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Frank Tipler: Evangelical Fundamentalist

This morning Niles and I had the following conversation, prompted by this Instapundit post:

Me: Hey, did you know that Frank Tipler isn't the textbook guy?

Niles: You mean the God guy? He didn't write the textbook?

Me: Right. Frank The Physics of Christianity Tipler is NOT Paul Physics for Scientists and Engineers Tipler.

Niles: I'm relieved!

I am too, especially when I read guff like this.

For example, I am aware of no American university that requires, for an undergraduate degree in physics, a course in general relativity...At the overwhelming majority of American is not even required to take a course in general relativity to get a Ph.D. in physics!

The outrage continues:

And it gets worse. The greatest achievement of physics since World War II has been the discovery of the Standard Model of particle physics, a unified theory of all forces and matter not including gravity...Yet I am aware of no physics department in the United States that requires a course in the Standard Model for an undergraduate degree in physics. Very few, if any, require a course in the Standard Model even for a Ph.D. in physics.

And quite right, too. GR and the Standard Model may be fundamental, but they are just not that important to most working physicists. Forgive me for stating the bleeding obvious, but physics is an enormous field. Besides GR (which is only really useful in certain astrophysical problems) and cosmology/particle physics, physics encompasses things like

  • superconductivity
  • superfluidity
  • solid state physics (practically, the study of electronic movement in a crystal lattice, e.g. semi-conductor physics)
  • materials physics (e.g. the mechanical or thermal properties of matter in bulk)
  • acoustics
  • optics
  • fluid mechanics
  • statistical mechanics/thermodynamics
  • a lot of other stuff I was too lazy to look up

As I started compiling this list, I realized it was going to get difficult because there's a lot of overlap between the fields: e.g. acoustics can be thought of as fluid mechanics -- i.e. the motion of waves in air -- but you can also have sound waves in solid matter, which falls under the realm of "materials physics".

The first four of these fall in the category of "condensed matter" physics, which, according to this (WARNING!) Wikipedia page, is the field of one-third of all physicists. This entire field deals, at the fundamental level, with the interactions of electrons, and requires neither GR nor particle physics. None of the fields above do, and neither does much of atomic & molecular (A&M) physics (e.g. spectroscopy) -- which another huge subfield of physics.

This morning I browbeat Niles into hearing bits of Tipler's article, and he reminded me that his position has always been that undergraduate education as it is known today is crap. You're taught a lot of stuff you'll never ever need, delaying your career until you're old and gray. He thinks that everything should be on-the-job training, and you can still sleep soundly knowing that the Standard Model is a closed book to you.

Then again, he is a victim of the British educational system, which tells its students that scientists have no need of history[2].

I never formally studied GR or particle physics, and have never needed them in my work. Without blowing my s00per-sekrit cover, I can tell you that my work requires:

  • Quantum mechanics (to the extent of understanding the origins of spectroscopic lines)
  • Fluid dynamics
  • Physics of charged fluids[1]
  • Thermodynamics
  • Optics (a bit)

But mostly it requires a lot of stuff I just had to pick up along the way. I never took fluid mechanics, for example, except for some aerodynamics courses in my mis-spent youth.

Niles thinks it should all be like that, but I believe that most of the picked-up stuff was made easier by having studied similar subjects. (As a counter-example, I took quantum mechanics before I took classical mechanics, and was completely mystified by the concept of the Hamiltonian. When I finally got around to classical mechanics, it all became clear. I'm still pretty flummoxed by QM as a whole, though.)

The thing is, you never know what it is you'll need to know. Therefore you try get as general education as possible in the limited amount of time you have.

When I was an undegraduate, here are the sorts of classes you were expected
to take:

  • Two semesters introductory physics, each with a lab
  • Two semesters chemistry, one with a lab
  • Three semesters calculus
  • One semester differential equations
  • One semester electronics lab
  • One semester FORTRAN (yes this was long ago)
  • One semester modern physics Extra Lite
  • One semester modern physics Lite
  • One semester classical mechanics
  • Two semesters electricity and magnetism
  • Two semesters advanced lab
  • One semester thermal physics
  • One semester intro to quantum mechanics

You were also required to take two physics electives and two math electives, plus a semester each of English composition, technical writing, and history, and nine semesters of humanities.

I confess I'm cheating somewhat, cribbing from the current requirements (there seems to be a new class, Intro. to Theoretical Physics, which I didn't have to take back in the day). These current requirements call for four semesters of fifteen hours each, two of sixteen hours, and two of eighteen hours. Eighteen hours, friends, is a full load. (In my day, twelve was considered full-time, and fifteen was about standard. The most I took was 17.)

Anyhow, Tipler's explanation for this is:

The basic reasons why modern physics is not covered in required courses are identical to the basic reasons why Shakespeare is not covered: (1) the faculty in both cases want to teach their narrow specialty rather than the basic courses in their field, (2) the faculty members in both cases no longer understand the basic material in their own field, (3) the faculty no longer believe there are fundamental truths in their own disciplines.

No. 1 is very possibly true. No. 2, even if true, is irrelevant, because the Standard Model is not "basic" to (say) a solid state experimentalist's field. No. 3 is just plain goofy; I don't know whether it's applicable to English departments, but most physicists don't go around in a postmodern nihilistic funk. The ones who ask what are the fundamental truths are the excited ones. Do we know what they are? Are there new ones to be discovered? And how can I get me some of that?

The true reason is much more prosaic: since you only have time for so much, you have to teach courses that will give the most benefit to most people. And however fundamental to the universe (and cool) particle physics and GR might be, they're not fundamental to the research of vast majorities of physicists.

There's also the teeny tiny point that the math required for these classes is hairy, so they'd have to be delayed until the senior year. GR, in particular, requires a knowledge of tensors,[3] so you'd have to have a tensor pre-requisite or teach tensors in class.

Rand Simberg, a man much too smart for the position he's taking here, agrees. See the comments for other views. In there somewhere, Rand seems to acknowledge that a survey class in modern physics would serve the purpose. That, I'm all for. If, for example, the section on the standard model can be thought of as an elaboration on this chart, that would be great.

But to make all physics undergrads take GR and particle theory just because they're "fundamental" is tantamount to requiring all biology students to take quantum mechanics, because, hey, it's "fundamental" to chemistry, which is fundamental to biology. (Even chemists gripe about having to take p-chem, which is a long way from QM.)

[1]My fluids are only weakly charged, else I could call myself a plasma physicist. I remember an Arthur C. Clarke book in which he was describing some phenomenon I've forgotten, and at the end he remarked that, "This field is called magnetohydrodynamics, and those who study it, God help them, are magnetohydrodynamicists." Niles started out as a magnetohydrodynamicist, but he got better.

[2]I tried to work Lavoisier into that sentence, but couldn't quite make it.

[3]Isn't that site great? I know what a tensor is (it's like a vector, but in more than three dimensions) and it still scared the hell out of me. Precision is the enemy of clarity, remember that.