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August 25, 2009


Warner W. Johnston

I have a BA in the Natural Sciences from Shimer. I am also a Senior Member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and currently chair the NY Section. I can claim quite reasonably to hold a gavel once held by Edison.

I learned how to apply the mathematics I learned at Shimer in the 60s to electronics at IIT in the 70s. Compared to Shimer it was now simple. I had learned how to learn. Thinking outside the box is automatic.

You may openly point to me as an engineer who did graduate from Shimer.

JD Donovan

Warner, thanks for your comments. You're living evidence that the bias against Great Books colleges by techies is misplaced. Stop by if you're ever in Chicago.

Martin MacIntyre

Before I graduated from Shimer in 1956, I knew that the dental school where I was planning to attend wouldn't accept my science courses and I would have to take General Chemistry, Inorganic and Organic Chemistry, Biology and Physic all in one year at a non-science oriented university. I got all A's even though I resented taking these courses and the fact they were saying my courses at Shimer were useless. I even wrote to the dean of the dental school (Washington University in St. Louis). I asked him the importance of memorizing the name of the that attached the tail (flagella) of the Euglena (on one cell animal)to the body of the Euglena. Uniquely, the dean of the dental school wasn't a dentist, he was a PhD anatomist. His response was unsatisfying although predictable - there was a counterpart of the anatomical part in the cilia found in the lungs and small intestines.

After my experience in dental school, a better and more accurate response would have been that memorizing in undergraduate courses was an excellent way to develop memorizing skills for exams in dental school.

As my revenge, I had set as my goal, the first year dental school Anatomy Award, given to the student with the highest grade in that subject. I took extensive notes and studied them diligently, although resenting the fact that the lecturer could have given us copies of the lecture he was reading.

I belately learned that in the anatomy courses in dental school, memorizing the answers to questions on old exams was the way to succeed. I only learned that after getting C+ on my first two tests and not recognizing the questions as coming from the lecture material. At the time, I was tutoring another student who received Bs on the same two tests because he had the old exams and failed to let me in on the secret. That's when I learned about the morality of dental school, along with the high rate of stealing that required everyone to etch their name on all their equipment.

I received my satisfaction (as in a duel)from the results of the third test, which was worth as much as the first two tests. I desparately found a source for the old exams. The fellow student (and future rival for the year end anatomy award)wouldn't allow me to take the old tests home with me so I had no choice but to write down each question that I didn't understand and research the correct answer. I learned that the problem was usually the difference in the qualifier (the meaning of which I learned at Shimer in both English and in Math). The question might start with All or Some("and that made all the difference" R. Frost Humanities).

For the third exam, I still studied my notes but I also researched the material for the questions I didn't understand.

Voila! The third test was the teacher's idea of giving the students a nasty lesson, knowing that all of us were by now depending on the old exams. He gave a dreded blue book exame (quite familiar to Shimer students for their English comp). Since I was the only student who had studied the notes (the others feeling comfortable in only studing the old exams) I received a grade of 98 out of 100 and the next highest grade was 75!

That one grade sent me from the bottom of the anatomy class to the top of the anatomy class. Now I knew that the teacher was also immoral. I know that he had taught us who was in charge and that there would never be another "blue book" exam because that was hard work for the teacher. So from then on I just research the questions I didn't understand and the teacher changed the answer to a few True and False questios by changing the qualifer from All to Some. Only a few student would notice the difference and get the correct answer to the changed question. My system of study allowed me to win the Anatomy Award, but it meant nothing to me because I knew it had no relations to my knowledge of anatomy, only my knowledge of the answers to questions on old exams.

I had my own secret satisfaction in the second year Biochemistry course for which I had taken all those extra course to be allowed to attend dental school and wasted a year of my life and my parent's money. In the middle of the course, the teacher came to class and triumphantly announced he had just learned about the Watson and Crick theory of the double helix and DNA! This was 1958 and I had read the original article in my Nat. Sci course in 1953 syllabus (don't hold me on the exact year). I just smiled.

Martin '56

Mike Sussman '98

"How could a namby-pamby liberal arts school prepare you for a rigorous scientific curriculum?"

I was stunned. Over the past few years, there have been several occasions where I'd found myself justifying the relevance of a Shimer Nat Sci education within scientific circles. Usually it was in the context of a subtle allusion, a professor silently wondering how I might perform in class, a potential collaborator curious how I might function in a pure research environment. None were so completely blatant, however, as this outright challenge to my scientific aptitude.

First, a little background. I'm currently enrolled in an astronomy graduate program, roughly 1 year away from my Ph.D. Some time ago we had a prospective student visit our program who had done his undergraduate work at Unnamed Incredibly Prestigious Ivy-League University (TM).

This particular prospective was obviously proud of his alma mater, perhaps to a fault. Part of a prospective student's visit to our department includes the requisite round table with current grad students, where most eager prospectives unleash a flurry of questions surrounding graduate life, research opportunities, stipends and the like. This particular fellow's main line of inquiry, however, was singularly distressing: where had each grad student done their undergraduate studies?

The thread of conversation had lazily wound its way around the table over the last half hour until landing squarely on me. "I went to Shimer, a small liberal arts college that taught the Great Books curriculum," I declared.

Looking a bit incredulous, the prospective replied with the above brazen query. "How could a namby-pamby liberal arts school prepare you for a rigorous scientific curriculum?"

The words echoed like a slap across the face. Did he really just ask that? It was obvious from this moment onwards this line of questioning was a poisoned well, that his intentions were disingenuous. He had no real interest in other students' undergraduate schools, but merely wanted to brag about his attendance at Unnamed Incredibly Prestigious Ivy-League University (TM).

In spite of his revealed motivations, the sheer gravity of his question hit the table like a lead weight. When first starting the uphill process of applying to grad schools, I felt a great deal of insecurity about my educational background. Did I leave Shimer properly prepared? Did I really know enough physics to pull this off?

A single year in graduate school had put all my fears to rest. After passing all my comprehensive exams in only my first year (a feat which no student had accomplished in the previous five years), I was confident that I knew my stuff. Nonetheless, this single provocation raised the spectre of all my irrational worries from the dead.

I paused to gather my thoughts, finally replying, "You'd be surprised what reading original scientific papers can teach you. Newton, Planck, Einstein...seeing the pitfalls and 'eureka moments' of today's established scientific facts allows one to have insights into the scientific process that can't be garnered from a textbook."

He was obviously not impressed. "Reading old papers might be historically amusing," he said with a dismissing wave of his hand, "but it's hardly relevant to learning the hard science and necessary equations that you learn from textbooks."

My thoughts flickered back to the late Waukegan afternoons spent in David Lukens' office, the hours we devoted in tutorials deriving tensor equations and general relativity as the Sun quietly set over Godot House. I could've mentioned these experiences and put his suspicions to rest that, yes, I really did know that aspect of science, as well.

Still, I wanted to convey the importance of understanding science on a "meta" level, the exact gift that Shimer had given me which I would not possess had I gone through a typical university science program. I countered, "Science thrives when it questions previously held models of the universe. In order to examine those models more effectively, knowing how we arrived at the facts we assume to be true is just as important as knowing the facts themselves, lest they be relegated to unexamined gospel.

"Look, science is not a noun, it's a verb. It's not some collection of facts up on the shelf that has been engraved in the tablet of human knowledge for all eternity. It's the act of observing the natural world to verify your model. If the model simply won't logically hold, you have to use those observations to make new models. In essence, if you're standing on the shoulders of giants to raise human understanding one level higher, you'd better make sure the base is stable."

His countenance was unchanged. "But we already knew these things are all true. Why bother taking a step backwards to re-examine them again? You're just rehashing old arguments that have long been settled."

I decided to use a concrete example. "The idea that light was a propagation of waves through the aether was with us for over 200 years. How can you be so sure that currently held models aren't similarly flawed?"

"Yes, and now we know the aether is just a ridiculous idea. There's no point to studying it because we know it's not true," he replied.

It was obvious I was getting nowhere fast. I could've repeated the stories of phlogiston or the caloric theory of heat, but I could tell his mind was already made up. Old science was simply irrelevant and had no bearing on the truth of current investigations.

This philosophical train of thought had stalled at the station; there was no point to continuing this line of inquiry. Since this prospective lived in a world of only hard numbers and quantitative data, I finally retorted with something he could understand, my ace in the hole.

"I got a ___ on the Physics GRE Subject Test."

He flinched. For a brief moment, a look of discomfort crossed his face; I had hit a sore spot. He regained his air of superiority and casually announced, "Oh, okay. I guess your method does work."

Obviously wishing to dwell on this point no longer, he moved on to my fellow grad student seated to my right, "So, where did *you* go to undergrad?"



I paused to gather my thoughts, finally replying, "You'd be surprised what reading original scientific papers can teach you. Newton, Planck, Einstein...seeing the pitfalls and 'eureka moments' of today's established scientific facts allows one to have insights into the scientific process that can't be garnered from a textbook."

I can definately relate to this, I'm currently studying for a BSc in Physical Science, and frequently find myself bringing up the papers.

Account Deleted

I think science can be taught without referencing evolution. Isaac Newton did not believe the theory, and is recognized as one of the world’s greatest scientists. I believe that the general theory of evolution is a hindrance to research and does not enhance the progress of knowledge at all. If you study the natural record without evolutionary glasses on, it makes much more sense. Evolution helps nothing in the progress of science; I believe it is useless and harmful to scientific progress. If anyone would like some examples of the obvious problems with the theory (they are numerous) I would be happy to expound. To answer the question: YES I believe strongly that you can teach the natural sciences without mentioning evolution. I believe that the theory of evolution will only warp and hinder scientific inquiry. Thank you.


JD Donovan

Allangering: Your comment raises several issues and I'll start where we agree. Yes, Newton didn't believe Darwin's theory. Of course, he died over a century before Darwin wrote "On the Origin of Species".

In Nat Sci 2, one of our authors is Cuvier, the father of paleontology, a faithful Catholic, and a believer in special creation. Cuvier, the greatest anatomist of his time, was the person who showed how to identify species from fossil fragments and who convinced the scientific community that those old, odd species were really extinct.

This was a radical idea at the time, and led to a conundrum which Cuvier himself admitted he could not resolve. Throughout natural history, species were constantly going extinct, and continue to do so. At the same time, he thought that no new species were evolving (although he knew Lamarck's theory of evolution, he strongly rejected it.) That means that the total number of species in the world must continually be declining. It was almost as if the world is slowing dying. Also, all living species are absent from the early fossil record; where were they back then? Why were there no mammals before the Jurassic Period? Why no land animals of any kind before the Devonian?

The issue is exacerbated today by the fact that a simple, unbiased classification of the fossil record shows that the number of species that have died out over time is many times more than the number extant today. This conclusion comes from pure observation; it does not depend upon evolution for it to stand. Cuvier accepted that he could not explain the raw data, and at times hinted that creation may have occurred several times, once after each major catastrophe. From a scientific perspective, this seemed rather ad hoc and unsatisfying. From the perspective of biblical literalism, this idea is non-scriptural and potentially heretical (although for Cuvier, a Catholic in a Catholic country like France, literal interpretation was not the norm.)

Cuvier is considered one of the half-dozen greatest biologists in history. He rejected evolution—the idea of species changing—on philosophical grounds and thereby could not make sense of his own fossil record. His own example refutes your statement that “If you study the natural record without evolutionary glasses on, it makes much more sense.” Cuvier was not smart enough to do it. Neither am I. But with the theory of Natural Selection, the progression from unicellular to multicellular life, from invertebrates to vertebrate fish, from sea to land, from cold-blooded to warm-blooded animals—it all makes sense. The relationships between genetic maps also make sense, and roughly overlay the maps supplied by paleontologists, an astounding coincidence unless all organisms are related in one giant family tree through common descent.

Finally, if your concern is that ‘godless evolution’ is somehow heretical and evil, consider that Darwin invokes the Creator several times in the Origin of Species. Many leading evolutionists have been practicing members of their faith, most notably Dobzhansky, one of the developers of the neo-Darwinian synthesis. Less notably, myself. On the other hand, if you take the position that evolution and belief in God are incompatible, you will find yourself on the side of several anti-religion crusaders, a group whose positions I suspect you likely reject.

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