News & Publications
The College Magazine - Summer 2008
TALKING ABOUT SCIENCE
CONSIDERING THE CHALLENGES OF LABORATORY
Late April, 9 a.m. Tuesday, senior lab: With Reality parties behind them and graduation days away, it's understandable that the students in tutor Adam Schulman's laboratory have trouble mustering up enthusiasm for the Lederberg-Tatum experiment. But as the students move away from the table to the laboratory to begin agitating E. coli bacteria, even the most serious cases of senioritis are chipped away by the beauty and simplicity of the experiment, which Schulman enticingly touts as "bacterial sex." This experiment, demonstrating gene transference in bacteria, is the last one these students will do at St. John's, completing an education in science that began when they read Theophrastus' Inquiry Concerning Plants and went outside to carefully observe the magnolia trees in Mellon Courtyard.
As with every aspect of the Program, laboratory at St. John's is a work in progress. The classic fruit fly experiments of the 1950s are gone; students today work on Einstein's photoelectric effect and Millikan's oil-drop experiment. Manuals have been revised and re-revised. Study groups have introduced new and interesting material to tutors, who work them into laboratory. Through it all, laboratory remains grounded in Barr and Buchanan's basic plan for science at the college. "These laboratories," Buchanan wrote in the 1937 Bulletin of St. John's College, "will provide a proper pre-professional scientific training, will illustrate the liberal arts in the liveliest contemporary practices, and will focus the past on the present for the whole course."
Nevertheless, the college has faced challenges in its laboratory program over the years. In A Search for the Liberal College, J. Winfree Smith recounted how faculty and students in 1948 expressed concerns that science was becoming less integrated with the rest of the curriculum and that faculty were employing conventional textbooks. The decision in 1976 to reduce the laboratory program from four to three years, so that students could devote more attention to the sophomore music tutorial, was controversial. And in a report he gave to the Board of Visitors and Governors in 1985, George Doskow, then dean in Annapolis, said: "The lab program remains, as it always has been, the most problematic part of the program."
The reasons he listed remain issues today:
The first question remains open-ended. Neither campus is actively considering adding more time for laboratory, although some tutors would like to see it revisited to slow down the pace and allow more time for biology. The remaining questions can be considered in the context of junior and senior laboratories. Though an essential work in junior lab, Maxwell's Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism is described variously as a "hard slog" and a "stretch," especially for students for whom math does not come easily. And in senior laboratory, a lack of experiments and a need to include some of the new discoveries in biology have prompted both campuses to think about including different works and experiments in laboratory.
"A Continuing Quest"
A fundamental question for the college, says Annapolis tutor Nick Maistrellis, is "what is the place of science in a liberal arts education?" That raises other questions, he adds, such as: How should the college accommodate modern science in a curriculum based on the classics? "That's the great problem St. John's has always faced in lab, and it's a continuing quest," Maistrellis says.
When Maistrellis joined the college in 1967, lab had already changed away from the direction set for it by the Program's founders. "Under Barr and Buchanan, lab focused a lot on using scientific equipment and experiments, on measurement and quantifying things. It did not follow the normal division of the sciences." The change of direction happened under Dean Jacob Klein, who was urging the college to focus more on the deeper questions of scientific theory. Maistrellis has been involved in some of the changes and improvements to the laboratory over the years. Thanks to investments made in the laboratories on both campuses—many funded by grants and gifts to the college—the labs are better equipped and more functional. Without a doubt, the program is stronger, more coherent, and more vital, he says. But in his view, more time is needed for biology.
Back in 1976, Maistrellis supported the move to reduce the laboratory to three years. Students were clearly overburdened and sophomore lab was a weak part of the program. "It involved dissecting a lot of animals and tended to be very much like a standard biology course," he says. Now, students have biology in freshman year and in the last semester of senior year—in all, just 23 weeks for biology. To accommodate modern developments and allow for a slower pace, Maistrellis would like to see "the question of getting more time for laboratory raised."
What we do in biology at St. John's, we do better than in past years, Maistrellis says. The program has already improved by shifting away from "dissecting dead things" to more observations on the biology of living things. More freshmen are spending laboratory classes down at the restored shoreline of College Creek, a living laboratory. Students in Santa Fe take advantage of a verticle mile of climate zones—including high desert, transitional and sub-alpine—when learning about classificiation. "New and wondrous things are being discovered all of the time," he says. "Biology is a living and progressive science and we should always be attentive to what we're doing. The very best thing about science at St. John's, Maistrellis says, is the simple fact that "everybody does it all. The students do it, the tutors all teach it. The way we do it, there's an emphasis on hands-on experiments and discussion, making science something to be talked about."
How Hard is Too Hard? Considering Maxwell
For Bruce Perry, who served as archon for junior lab in Santa Fe last year, the second year of laboratory illustrates how well science speaks to and draws from other aspects of the Program. "We start with Galileo, who's sort of the father of modern science, and it's beautifully sequenced with other readings," he says. "Students do some Newton in math, they do Newton in lab. They do Leibniz in math, and Leibniz in lab. So you're seeing the same author in two different paths: one as a mathematician, one as a physicist. It's really interesting."
After considering Gilbert, Ampere, Coulomb, and Øersted, junior lab devotes a month to Faraday. "Everyone knows how magnets work, but people didn't know that magnets and electric currents could interact or that you could have magnetic fields. And then people noticed that currents could attract. So you start seeing all these weird overlaps with these phenomena," says Perry. "Faraday sorts out all the phenomena, and a way of accounting for them."
One reason laboratory devotes so much time to Faraday is to set the stage for Maxwell, who in turn sets the stage for studying Einstein in senior mathematics. For 10 weeks, students read Maxwell's Treatise and attempt to translate Maxwell into modern vector calculus. The material can be frustrating for students, some of whom find it a "hard slog," says Perry.
To explore Maxwell, Santa Fe uses a manual originally developed by tutor Peter Pesic and subsequently revised by tutor Jim Forkin. Annapolis uses a book by Tom Simpson that comprises three short papers by Maxwell and many notations by Simpson, supplemented by further notes by tutor Chester Burke. At 1,000 pages, the Treatise is "not very approachable," so Santa Fe juniors read 20 to 30 pages of it along with many pages of tutor notes, Perry says. "There's a division about whether we're going to stay with the Treatise as what we do here in Santa Fe, or do something like what Annapolis does." A faculty study group is meeting this summer in Santa Fe to explore this issue in depth.
A balance is needed, he suggests, between working out the equations and understanding the process. "The whole idea is to understand where the science comes from, why one line of thought emerged, why some other path did not. It's not just theory, it's not the history of science; it's more like seeing what science looks like in the actual messiness of how it emerges, and the limits of what one knows or doesn't," he says, adding, "that's one of the things at the college that's wonderful."
In Annapolis, tutor Dylan Casey agrees that Maxwell is difficult and that students can get frustrated. As a physicist, one of the things that drew him to St. John's was the college's inclusive approach to science and mathematics—everybody does it all, regardless of their particular aptitude for math and science. Frustration is only a problem if students give up, but Casey believes that juniors have adapted to working through difficult material. "We read the Republic, we read the Metaphysics, and there are all sorts of things there that we acknowledge that we find confusing. But we say, 'let's try to understand it.' I think that works well here at St. John's."
The quest to comprehend Maxwell's equations while following the development of his ideas, Casey suggests, is similar to memorizing Ancient Greek paradigms to approach the Meno. "You want to learn the language, but you're not there to learn it in itself, to master it," he says. "There's a similar tension in Maxwell. We're confronting a very challenging thing, and mathematics that students recognize but that many are not comfortable with: differential equations and proto vector calculus. Maxwell is developing what he calls a physical analogy and he's presenting it through mathematical work, but because we are less facile with the mathematics it makes it harder for us to see the work in a physical analogy."
Underlying the tension is that at St. John's, we strive not to take anything for granted. Casey questions whether this is always possible. "When we study Euclid and mathematics, we want to understand the geometry, but a lot of the focus is on trying to understand why he is trying to say what he does," he says. "With Maxwell, we may have to take some things for granted and then see how his argument plays out, to look at it in itself."
Perhaps some of Maxwell's derivations can be taken for granted to allow for more time to discuss his conclusions. "It's a little bit like understanding how to drive a car without understanding how the car was built. It might be helpful to understand the physics, but really, only part of that really matters," he says. "I think we overestimate sometimes how much doing the derivation will enlighten us as to what the final equation means. It's something we have to work out every day."
The college will always grapple with whether there's too much, whether the pace is too quick and where precious time is best invested, but Casey anticipates that "the basic shape of the junior lab is going to stay the same."
Brave New World: Senior Laboratory
Senior laboratory, says Marilyn Higuera in Annapolis, has two challenges to address: 1) not enough experiments and 2) a need to get from Darwin and Mendel to beyond Watson and Crick. Both of these issues speak to heightening the excitement of discovery and wonder in students.
"For a while now, tutors have thought maybe that the story of the gene is not as thought-provoking as it once was," Higuera explains. "Students already come to the college knowing that Mendel's factors are in some way connected not only with the chromosome, but with part of the chromosome. The articles are still quite interesting but students already know pretty much what they were looking for."
Higuera also wants to see more experiments in senior year. The problem is "evolution, in general, doesn't lend itself to experiments" that can be done in the time allotted for laboratory in senior year, one month less because of essay writing. Right now, the laboratory experiments with fast-growing plants that are similar to the ones Mendel used in his genetic experiment. "After that, we're a bit puzzled," Higuera says. "We do some chemical things with bacteria, but you can't see the bacteria until they colonize. So we're hoping, eventually, to include more plant work in the lab and maybe in Annapolis we can take advantage of our wetlands."
Faculty study groups offer a way for tutors to help shape improvements to laboratory. Annapolis faculty members who participated in tutor Kathy Blits' 2004 group on ecology and evolution went away excited by the subject matter, and Higuera later chaired a lab committee that met to review papers that could be studied in senior lab. "We began to be aware that there are really philosophically interesting questions coming up as scientists try to refine their knowledge of how the gene works. It's not clear what you want to identify as its function. We are entertaining the notion that there might be papers we want to read and ways of raising these questions in our own classes."
Higuera is fascinated by the norm of reaction, a phenomenon of genetic development referring to the fact that organisms with exactly the same genes do different things when exposed to different environments. "There are so many interesting questions," she says enthusiastically. "How does an 'organism' recognize that it's in a different environment? What should one call the environment? We tend to think of it as 'outside your body' but genes have an environment and they interact with their environment. Where do you draw the boundaries? These are wonderful questions that have scientists wringing their hands."
It always comes down to the question: where do you fit it in? "It would be tough to get from Darwin to that level, but I think tutors and students would be really interested in that."
While he agrees that more time must somehow be made for biology, Stephen Houser, senior lab archon in Santa Fe last year, is fairly satisfied with senior lab these days. The first semester of senior year is particularly exciting he says, because of the questions it raises through the study of quantum physics about the nature of science and the human relationship to the world we're observing. These are questions that "don't get asked in other parts of the Program," he says. "We just scratch the surface, but certainly the Indeterminacy Principle is one of those areas that suggest that, in some way, our minds and the world may not be fully commensurate. There are a number of different aspects to that. Particle-wave duality is another example, which is also connected to Heisenberg. That's just another place where it seems like our minds are not geared toward what seems to be a paradox in reality."
The arrangement of having quantum physics in the first semester and biology in the second is a "historical accident," says Houser, but there some connections. In Santa Fe, students read Shrödinger's What is Life? that helps connect physics to biology. Although he explores questions of entropy before the discovery of DNA, Shrödinger suggests "there was some large complex molecule that did govern the operation of cells," Houser says. "That's an interesting problem, because living organisms represent a very high level of order, and it's hard to understand how they can maintain that order because they don't have the statistical basis upon which order is based in the rest of the world."
Shrödinger's text underscores the discovery in first semester that "cause and effect turns out not to be a necessary connection, as Kant thought it was, but it's really a statistical connection."
As for second semester, Houser sees it as "a pretty coherent whole" that starts with Darwin and the issue of inheritance, then moves to Mendel and the discovery and exploration of the function of chromosomes, and how those might be related to heredity.
Houser would like to see the college include The Triple Helix, a book by Richard Lewontin: "That's the perfect way to end the semester because he talks about the broad-ranged questions that come up for us, and lots of new questions as well. But he brings back the question of the role of reductionism in the question of evolution, to some extent, what an organism is," Houser says.
If Houser would suggest one improvement for laboratory, it would be finding a way to better unite the biology of freshman year with that of senior year. "The larger debate in biology is the debate between those who take a more holistic view—environmentalists, ecologists, that sort of thing—and reductionism. Some of the tendency in the freshman year has been to go in the holistic direction, and yet most of the work we do in the second semester of the senior year is reductionism. If we're going to engage in a reductionist enterprise in the senior year, then maybe we ought to do a little bit more preparation in the freshman year."
The St. John's way of doing science—no matter how vigorously the college fine-tunes it—will always have its detractors. One would have to experience the Program in its entirety to see the beauty and wisdom of science's place at St. John's, says Higuera. "What I love to see is that all our students awake to all of these fascinating questions and they develop a certain kind of confidence in their own ability to think about them. That's true for everything in our Program."
As far as science goes, studying a magnolia leaf, carrying out the oil-drop experiment, and colonizing bacteria are valuable even when they don't work exactly as they should. "We try to see through the eyes of the scientist, follow his thinking, and see if we agree. That's a valuable skill to practice—for science, for any discipline. Students are engaging in observing the world and thinking in a way that one doesn't if one is just memorizing laws and working problems," she says.
Because the goal is to cultivate an ability to ask questions and consider conclusions with a skeptical eye, experiments have a different role at St. John's than they would in an upper-level course in organic chemistry or developmental biology at another institution. "An experiment is always a work in progress," says Houser, more like a "brief encounter with the material world." Last year in Santa Fe, Houser's students were discouraged because their Millikan experiments didn't turn out as expected. "That's one of the lessons that could be learned in the lab," he says. "That is the difficulty and level of frustration you have to live with as a scientist."
Casey points out that when students discuss Lavoisier and the problem of naming, the first question they may ask is "why is this problem important?" For Casey, that's what sets the college apart. "We put our hands on things. We ask questions and we try to read between the lines," he says. "That's what made me really interested in St. John's."