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A problem with physics

May 20, 2007, 2:00 pm

Frank Tipler, professor of physics at Tulane University, sees a problem with the way physics is taught today — namely that American universities are not requiring students to learn either general relativity or the Standard Model — and posits a reason why this problem exists:

The basic reasons why modern physics is not covered in required courses are identical to the basic reasons why Shakespeare is not covered: (1) the faculty in both cases want to teach their narrow specialty rather than the basic courses in their field, (2) the faculty members in both cases no longer understand the basic material in their own field, (3) the faculty no longer believe there are fundamental truths in their own disciplines. I’m sure that many members of typical university’s English faculty no longer have a basic understanding of Shakespeare. How could they, if they themselves have never taken a course on Shakespeare? A degree in English is no longer a guarantee that the degree holder has a basic knowledge of Shakespeare or other great writers.

Tipler is the author of The Physics of Christianity, and he argues in this same article that “a collapse of belief in Christianity over the past several decades among university faculty has been accompanied by a collapse in the belief that there is fundamental truth which should be imparted to students.” Certainly the notion of fundamental truth that is both knowable and objective isn’t exactly in vogue among academicians. But it’s still a little surprising to hear this accusation leveled at scientists, who at least believe that their discipline has a sort of asymptotic approach to The Truth. A lot of scientists I know are sound atheists but are also avowed rationalists, and their lack of belief in God definitely does not result in a lack of belief in truth.

Although I can definitely see why somebody who seriously studies quantum theory or string theory would begin to doubt his or her own existence, much less lose faith in fundamental truth.

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