Physics 1905 Freshman Seminar:

Numbers, Words, Ideas


Michael DuVernois

320 Tate Laboratory, 116 Church St. SE

Office phone: 624-6844 


“It's unheard of, an adventure like this in the midst of the 20th century...” - Guy Debord


The course aims to address some of the following questions (in a light-hearted (really!) manner):

What is the scientific method?

How does science actually work?

What is progress?

What is the role of scientific discourse in society?

How do reason and superstition coexist?

How are statistics used and misused?

            And plenty of others.


The required books for this class are:

The Double Helix (Watson)

Atoms (Perrin)

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Kuhn)

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science (Gardner)


Most of these books can be found used in various editions (although Atoms can be hard to find)—try or to start. In addition, there can be weekly handouts and there is a cart of potential reading/research material for student papers. Every attempt will be made to be flexible and responsive to individual interests. Readings will come from the fields of physics, philosophy, biology, medicine, history, sociology, anthropology, and possibly others. Classroom time will consist of informal discussions of the readings and the incorporation of recent events.


Several short reaction papers will be due during the semester. A longer paper, in which students apply the topics discussed in the class to a subject of their choice, will be due at the end of the semester. (There are no exams, final or otherwise.)


We will be taking a relatively light-hearted approach to much of the material. This seminar isn’t intended to be a full treatment of either logic or the philosophy of science.



The grade in the course will be based upon class participation and the papers. Any paper may be turned in a second time after careful consideration of the comments and a rewrite. Both the 1st and final versions must be turned in together. A successful rewrite will replace the former grade for the paper.


“In any theoretical exegesis, the words ‘of course’ should flash red lights before the transported reader.” – Benedict Anderson, “Imagined Communities”


Writing assignments (More formal and more details than we’ll need with a small class, but…)

During the term I expect three short papers and one longer, final paper. Source material and themes will be almost entirely open. All of the essays are expected to be serious attempts to confront one or more aspects of the readings up that point in time and/or the readings available on the class book-cart. Each of the short papers could be of the book-report form, or an extended weaving-together of assigned readings together with other sources of interest. You are free to select books or portions of boos that match your general interests as long as the class themes are present to some extent in every paper (as evidenced by your mentioning them at appropriate places in your arguments). The last paper differs from the earlier ones in requiring a comparative discussion of multiple source documents, although there are no a priori restrictions on subject matter.


Please write these papers slowly and thoughtfully, the way I will read them. In particular, the principal source of evidence about whether you’re learning anything in the seminar s the presence in your papers of citations to the course reading and discussions as appropriate. On the technical side, please attend to spelling, grammar, sentence structure, and paragraphing as well as to logic and content. Papers should be page-numbered, stapled, 1 ˝ or double spaced, and have a blank page at the end for comments. The following approaches (or rhetorical stances) are unacceptable for any of the papers:


         editorials on how painful, outrageous, or politically unpalatable you find someone else’s use or misuse of numbers or reasoning;


          papers that misquote the target author, or ignore caveats in the text, or state that the material is flawed because the author did not check for the effect of X, where X is something out of a theory you just made up;


          high-school-type “book reports” retelling the themes of a reading without criticism, reflection, or reinterpretations;


          papers that systematically fail to apply tests of reasonable skepticism to arguments arising in your sources;


          papers which read like debating positions or political sound bites, intentionally ignoring countervailing evidence, or arguing from ideology, dogma, or stereotypes in the guise of quantitative reasoning;


          comments from folk wisdom (“everyone knows that…”);


          critiques of author whom you believe to be hopelessly confused or genuinely stupid (if in opposition, choose a worthy opponent);


          comments drawing inferences from an author’s hypothetical state of mind (“he must have meant…”).


“What sphinx of cement and aluminum bashed open their skulls and ate up their brains and imagination?” -Allen Ginsberg



The seminar is intended to foster active, lively, friendly, and (hopefully) thought-provoking discussions. To this end, everyone should complete as much of the reading each week as possible. Polite disagreements are to be encouraged, but personal attacks or prejudices are not.


Tentative Schedule

9/5                   Introductions, nature of the seminar, initial steps


9/12                 On formal & informal logic, logical processes, logical fallacies


9/19                 Discussion of canonical “good science,” Double Helix, scientific culture


9/26                 Science (and academics) in theory and practice, 1st paper due


10/3                 Quantitative reasoning, Atoms, nature of numbers


10/10               Statistics 101, living and lying with statistics, risk society


10/17               Progress, philosophy of the history of science, 2nd paper due


10/24               Philosophy of Science, Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the great debate


10/31               Radical critique of science, Marxism, Feminism


11/7                 Limits of science, reasoning, and logic, 3rd paper due


11/14               Pathological science, Fads and Fallacies, fraud


11/21               Thanksgiving week, no class


11/28               Ideologies, theologies, tautologies


12/5                 Student presentations


12/12               Final class, long paper due, more presentations



“One World, one Web, one Program” - Microsoft promotional ad

“Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuhrer” - Adolf Hitler