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Why Does Science Matter?

We at Albright College promote the ideals of a liberal education. We study what to know, we teach how to know it, and we debate why it is worth knowing. We require the study of laboratory sciences because the natural world surrounds us, fascinates us and is subdued by us. We require a basic understanding of the methods of science so we can discern scientific methods—with their promises, scopes and limitations from other methods. We contextualize this knowledge within the sciences and then unflinchingly take our discoveries across disciplinary boundaries.

The natural sciences, one of the three academic divisions of the College, are a key component of the liberal education. That is why one course unit is required of all students in order to earn an Albright diploma. (The three academic divisions are the natural sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities which include the visual and performing arts.)

The infrastructure required to teach and learn science represents possibly the largest investment the College makes in academic buildings. Simply put, labs cost more to build than other classrooms—including “smart classrooms.” For example, chemistry laboratories can have upwards of 36 water spigots, and that is only the beginning of the specialized teaching and research space we need to build to support the natural sciences.

We insist upon exposure to and immersion in the physical and natural sciences as a matter of curriculum. Yet the sciences do not yield their secrets easily, and certainly not to the casual disciple. Combined with the material expense, this human cost might give us pause: we require a curriculum that is expensive and potentially intimidating.

We claim that education in the sciences is central to our mission as an institute of higher education focusing on the liberal arts. But why is science education a critical component of our curriculum? Why is it important to study the natural world and the physical principles that govern it? How do such studies complement the social sciences, the humanities and the fine arts, and how do they promote our focus on interdisciplinarity?

... one need not
know that force equals
mass times acceleration
to see that an apple
falls from a tree.

We can credit our insistence on this essential component of the liberal education to many factors. I prefer to give credit to one person. I speak not of the chair of the faculty or the chair of the Educational Policy Council, nor of any individual at the College. Rather, I think that we require a laboratory science course as a component of our general studies because Isaac Newton requires this of us.

We live in Newton’s world; we play in the sandbox he conceived. He is not the only person we could name in a list of notable thinkers who are household names because their work infuses our everyday lives. Isaac Newton, however, represents a cusp in the history of thought, an epistemological break that marks a paradigm shift: the pre- and post-Newtonian eras. Interestingly, Newton himself did not live in this same world, nor did he accomplish his magna opera simply by studying science or being a scientist. We at Albright especially look to Newton because he was not merely interdisciplinary, he was a polymath, and his broad interests informed one another. Though a mere mortal, his preternatural intellect causes him to appear like a god.

There is no secret to his success, though. Rather, in hindsight, his methods are remarkably rational. Isaac Newton simply observed the world around him and formalized his observations in written, mathematical and even coded languages. Newton sat on the beach as a child and watched the waves roll onto the shore. Most all of us have been here and done that. Yet Newton combined his curiosity about wave motion with mathematics and developed wave theory. Add a few centuries and human perseverance and voilà—we can explain how the dress on Caravaggio’s Judith differs in color (the wavelength of light) from that of Artemisia’s Judith. And Newton insisted that the method be pure—well, most of the time. As suggested above, he was the product of his age: some alchemy slipped into his works and some of his own beliefs would not yield to the intellectual works he created. However, Newton is remembered as a firstamong- equals in that particular transformation of human systems of thought now called the Scientific Revolution.

In this modern world, most of us proceed unaware of the details of Newton’s contributions. Sure, we may know that F = ma (force equals mass times acceleration, Newton’s Second Law of Motion) or we may have studied the calculus (invented by Newton and, independently, by Leibniz). And we may even know that scientific theories rely on the collection of empirical data (a method Newton demanded). These details are unimportant, though: Newton did not change our perception of the universe—one need not know that force equals mass times acceleration to see that an apple falls from a tree. What is important is that Newton played a starring role in a movement that radically changed how we contextualize and act upon that observation. He changed how we analytically make sense of our perceptions and formalize our knowledge.

With the Scientific Revolution, informed perspective superseded superstition and formulary displaced craft. Even God—rather, our conception of the Almighty—transmogrified from capricious to rational. Luckily, Sir Isaac provides for us both content and context for the study of the natural and physical sciences and, as a bonus, he reveals to us the necessity and the benefit of a liberal education.

.... liberally educated
individuals who have a
grasp of the ways and
means of the natural
sciences are better prepared to wrestle with the complex questions we face ...

Newton himself was the product of a liberal education. He himself was a scholar in philosophy, mathematics, history, Latin and Greek, theology, and other areas of study. Newton worked, studied and theorized in each of these areas. He mixed and matched them as his prodigious skills allowed. The evidence of his life’s works indicates very clearly that his work in each discipline informed his work in the other disciplines, and that indeed his remarkable conceptual leaps were interdisciplinary.

Poetically, a liberal education provides an ideal setting for the study not only of the natural and physical sciences but of scientists and scientific endeavors, and their impacts on issues and ideas represented in other disciplines. So prepared, we augment and contextualize our understanding of characters such as Newton and we explore their thoughts and their impact on the history of human thought and behavior.

To fulfill our mission, we are building the new Science Center at Albright College, thus re-affirming our commitment to the role of the laboratory sciences in the curriculum. We study the laboratory sciences because they complete the humanities, fine arts and social sciences, and each discipline informs the other. And we are constructing a new building so that we can undertake our studies in the most propitious conditions. The beneficiaries, of course, are our students and evergrowing legion of alumni.

And the benefit is this: liberally educated individuals who have a grasp of the ways and means of the natural sciences are better prepared to wrestle with the complex questions we face and with the difficult decisions we will make as contributing members of our society. Some of these neatly fall into the category of science—pollution, global warming, food contamination, and so on. And others cross traditional disciplinary boundaries—public policy, industrial regulation, social responsibility – issues for which we rely on a broader perspective.

The sciences provide us with methods of inquiry and tools of analysis that help us to formalize our understanding of that world and continue the Newtonian adventure of interdisciplinary exploration of the mysteries of the universe. We study the natural sciences with all the liberal arts because the world requires this of us—a world that surrounds us and fascinates us, but does not yield its secrets easily, and certainly not to the casual disciple.

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