Ron Rosenbaum

The Damage Done (2): Postmodern Ignorance Afflicts Physics as Well as Literature

I thought it would be valuable to share with you the full text of a comment to my recent post on academia’s discredited postmodern fear of literature. It comes from one of the the world’s leading physicists, Professor Frank Tipler of Tulane, most well known for his role in the development of the “anthropic” cosmological principle and for his provocative book The Physics of Immortality which I highly recommend.

I was fortunate some years ago to have dinner with Prof. Tipler in New Orleans and found him to be one of those scientists with an impressively wide range of interests and an eagerness to engage in intellectual discussion outside his particular field of study. I was also impressed recently by an email from him on the subject of my book The Shakespeare Wars in which he made a fascinating link between my discussion of multiple ambiguities in Shakespeare’s sonnets as adumbrated by critics such as William Empson and Stephen Booth and the “many worlds” theories of contemporary cosmology. Shakespeare the cosmologist? Yes!

In any case Professor Tipler was moved by my post on the pathetic postmodern English professor I dubbed “The Relic”, a sad cult worshipper of Nazi-friendly postmodern theorist Paul de Man whom I encountered at a lecture I gave at the University of Chicago. In the post I lamented the disappearance of the study of Shakespeare from the teaching of literature in American universities (due largely, I believe, to the repellant force of the addled, jargon-ridden rhetoric of antiquated postmodernists of The Relic’s ilk).

Professor Tipler responded with an impassioned lament about a parallel depressing development in the teaching of physics. I reprint his comment in full:

Ron Rosenbaum ( recently wrote, commenting on the fact that Shakespeare was no longer a required course for English majors at the overwhelming majority of American elite universities: “It’s like studying physics while denying the existence, or at least the importance, of gravity.”

Actually, the situation is just as bad in physics departments. At the overwhelming majority of physics departments at American elite universities, the importance of gravity is denied. I am aware of no American university that requires, for an undergraduate degree in physics, a course in general relativity, which is Einstein’s theory of gravity. At the overwhelming majority of American elite universities, one is not even required to take a course in general relativity even to get a Ph.D. in physics! As a consequence, the overwhelming majority of American Ph.D.’s in physics do not understand general relativity. If a problem arises that requires knowledge of Einstein’s theory of gravity, almost all American physicists can only look blank. This is in spite of the fact that general relativity has been known to be the correct theory of gravity for almost a century.

And it gets worse. The greatest achievement of physics since the Second World War has been the discovery of the Standard Model of particle physics, a unified theory of all forces and matter not including gravity. The Standard Model has been experimentally confirmed, and some dozen and more Nobel Prizes in physics have been awarded for the discovery and experimental confirmation of the Standard Model. 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.

So one can get an undergraduate degree in physics and even a Ph.D. in physics, without knowing anything at all about the fundamental forces that control the universe at the most basic level. Since our entire civilization requires at least somebody knows basic physics, requires that at least people who have Ph.D.’s in physics know basic physics, this is a disaster.

Every undergraduate in physics, or at the very least, every graduate student in physics, should be required to take a two-semester sequence, one semester on general relativity, and one semester on the Standard Model. The mathematics required for these courses, multivariable calculus (partial derivatives) is now taught in most elite high schools. Furthermore, all mathematics and physics majors have had the basic mathematics required for these two courses by the end of their freshman year. Both courses have been taught for decades to physics undergraduates (alas, only to a small minority, as an elective), and there are plenty of textbooks available. But no physics department will require these courses.

I happen to be a professor of physics at Tulane University. Long ago I introduced an undergraduate/graduate course on the Standard Model, and a similar course on general relativity. But I have never even taught the Standard Model course, and I teach the general relativity course only every half-decade. No one else at Tulane University has ever taught either course in the quarter century I have been a physics professor at Tulane. Once, on my own initiative, I forced a required course on the Standard Model at the graduate level, since I believed and continue to believe that knowledge of the Standard Model should be required of all Ph.D.’s in physics. I achieved this by changing a required two-semester graduate course in electromagnetism into a one-semester course in electromagnetism (something that is now standard at most universities, but not at Tulane, which has retained the two-semester E&M course that was standard 70 years ago), and a one-semester course on the Standard Model. I used an undergraduate textbook for the Standard Model course.

The students violently objected. They didn’t see any reason for them to learn the Standard Model. They saw no reason why they should know any basic physics beyond what was standard 50 years ago. The other faculty backed them up, and I was never asked to teach the E&M course again. This occurred more than 10 years ago, and since then not one Ph.D. at Tulane has been taught the Standard Model.

The reason the physics faculty backed the graduate students up — supported them in their desire to remain ignorant of the central fundamental theory of physics — is that they themselves were never taught the Standard Model when they were graduate students, and thus they saw no reason to require their own students to be taught it. I wasn’t taught the Standard Model either when I was a graduate student — it was in the process of being discovered when I was a graduate student — but it was obviously something every physicist should know, so I taught myself the theory. These same physics faculty were never taught general relativity either (I was; and in fact my Ph.D. thesis was on a problem in general relativity), so they see no reason why physics Ph.D.’s should be taught general relativity. They explicitly deny the importance of gravity.

The reason for this denial of the importance of gravity and the Standard Model is that the vast majority of physics faculty would prefer to teach courses in their own narrow areas of expertise rather than teach the general physics which forms the foundation of these areas of physics. It is the same reason why Shakespeare is no longer a required course for English majors at most American elite universities. If Shakespeare were a required course, then faculty who actually understood Shakespeare would have to be hired to teach him and his works. But since there are fewer and fewer required courses in Shakespeare there are necessarily fewer and fewer Ph.D.’s in English who understand Shakespeare. And even more important is the drive of the English faculty to hire people who will support their desire to teach something other than great literature. A similar dynamic is occurring in physics departments in the United States. There is a push to hire only faculty who will teach courses only in very narrow areas of physics, faculty who will support the existing bias of the faculty.

Increasingly, a degree in physics from an elite American university is no guarantee that the student with this degree has any knowledge of basic physics. Unfortunately, the future faculty in physics will be selected from this uneducated population, unless we make hires entirely from people with degrees from foreign universities, and I suspect that since often the faculty of these foreign universities will have been trained in American universities, the physics faculty of the entire world will know no basic physics.

In this eventuality, education in physics will have to be obtained from some source other than a university. Judging from the disappearance of Shakespeare from the English departments at American universities (Tulane does not require a course in Shakespeare for an undergraduate degree in English) this corruption of education is probably universal across all disciplines. If so, then all advanced education will have to be obtained outside of the university. If this is the case, then why should universities exist at all?