Assistant Professor of Philosophy Tammy Nyden is teaching a course this fall that, in another life and time, she would not have been allowed to take or teach. Her research focuses on 17th century philosophy, and she and Assistant Professor of Physics Sujeev Wickramasekara are team-teaching a new interdisciplinary course on “Space, Time, and Motion.”
Two of the course's guest lecturers will hold public lectures in September:
- Alan Gabbey, an expert in the history of science from Barnard College, will demonstrate Newton’s famous bucket experiment during his campus presentation on “Christiaan Huygens’ Dismantling of Newton’s Absolute Space, preceded by some puzzles about Simultaneity,”
Fri., Sept. 11, 4:15 p.m., in Noyce 1023
- Dan Garber of Princeton University, whose work inspired the course, will present a public lecture on “Galileo, Newton and All That: If It Wasn’t a Scientific Revolution, What Was It?,”
Fri., Sept. 18, 4:15 p.m., Noyce 1023
“The idea of the course is to look at two time slices of scientific discovery—17th century and 20th century—and how scientific and philosophical concepts were debated in those times,” Nyden said. “We’ll look at classical and modern physics on the scientific side; and metaphysics and the nature behind reality on the philosophical side.”
Developing the course took Nyden and Wickramasekara on a research trip to the National Science Museum of the Netherlands, the Boerhaave Museum, in Leiden. The museum holds a treasure trove of 17th century scientific equipment—equipment Nyden could not have used had she been a female student, dare scientist, in that time.
Nyden's research on how culture and philosophy in the 17th and 18th centuries affect science, religion, and political tensions joined with Wickramasekara's expertise in physics to become the basis of the new humanities/science course.
The first module of the course recreates the experience of learning physics at the University of Leiden at the end of the 17th and beginning of the 18th century—a time and place at the center of the “scientific revolution.”
The second module—during which students will recreate the Michelson-Morley and Muon decay experiments— examines Einstein’s theories of general and special relativity and their intellectual history.
The final module considers recent views about scientific change in the history and philosophy of science.
“It’s important that students appreciate how much effort went into experiments and equipment at that time,” Nyden said. “We’ll be recreating scientific equipment from that period and using equipment from the Grinnell Physics Museum to understand problems and solutions.” Students will also be using equipment created by Grinnell resident Matt Karjalahti, using wood salvaged from the science building during its renovation.
Although students will complete informal writing assignments that consider class, gender, race, wealth, technology, and access, Nyden says the main focus of the course will be semester-long research projects in which students will have a great deal of freedom to pick the topic and format for sharing their research. “For instance,” Nyden explains, “they may produce documentaries, re-create and demonstrate experiments from one of the periods we are studying, work out a problem, discuss a philosophical concept from the course theme, etc.”
Wickramasekara and Nyden’s course was mentioned recently in The Daily Beast’s America’s 10 Hottest Classes.