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What can you learn from Descartes?

Hands with writing showing "I think" and "I am"

Taking Descartes back into the physics classroom. (Courtesy: Shutterstock)

By James Dacey in Córdoba, Argentina

What’s the best way to teach tricky physics concepts to students? Naturally, this was one of the questions underpinning many of the talks here at the International Conference of Physics Education (IPCE) in Córdoba. According to a couple of educationalists in Latin America at least, it seems that one approach is to enlist the help of some of the great scientists and philosophers of the past.

Patricia del V. Repossi, a lecturer at the Pontificia Universidad Católica Argentina in Buenos Aires, spoke about how she uses the history of science as a framework for teaching optics. Repossi explained how she had come to realize that some of the students taking her conventional optics course believed that photons are made of the same stuff as “tennis balls”. So, she and her colleagues set about transforming the way they teach the topic – by combining a physics class with a history lesson.

The course begins with the work of the French researcher and philosopher René Descartes and then takes the students on a journey through the development of the corpuscular theory of light. It takes in the work and the relationships between the likes of Descartes’ fellow countryman Pierre Gassendi, Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton.

The crucial feature is that the students do not only learn about the work of these great thinkers, but they are guided into thinking along the same lines as these historical giants. This approach, Repossi says, is a great way for students to get a far more tangible appreciation of the nature of light.

Another Latin American educationalist who is keen on learning from the past is Roberto Nardi. He gave a fascinating talk about how he and his colleagues at São Paulo State University in Brazil have developed a 40-hour course on the history and philosophy of science for teachers in the local region. Having delivered the course to many teachers, they have since followed the development of five of these educators, to see whether it had changed the way they are teaching. They also studied a teacher trainer, who had taken their history course three years earlier, to see if she is sharing the information with the next generation of teachers.

Their conclusion? There has been some trickle down into the education system. But as is the case the world over, the teachers in Brazil are limited by the fact that they have to cram so much other information into the curriculum. A worthwhile project, they say, but room for improvement.

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  1. Karl Young

    What can you learn from Descartes?

    Nothing according to masters of the universe Weinberg, Krauss, Hawking, Tyson, et. al – please ignore any thought or form of thought that hasn’t been had by one of the masters of the universe in the last ten minutes.

  2. Descartes demarcated the gulf between the phenomenal world of colors and sounds, which we perceive, from the physical world extended in space, which can only be inferred (on the basis of the phenomenal world.) The dominant mindset of physicists today is called “physicalism,” which fastens on Descartes’ extension-in-space as the basis for physics, and ignores the phenomenal world of mind altogether. Counter currents of thought persist through the work of Russell and Whitehead, who interpreted Special Relativity as the reduction of space-time to time alone, which is revived today as “causal set theory.” If causal set theory proves to be the sufficient foundation for physics, the final reduction of physics will owe to Descartes and the legacy of analytic philosophers who followed in his footsteps.

  3. Michael Greenspan

    To my great sorrow, my kids in high school have to cope with a teaching method which is intended to teach them how to solve the problems they will encounter on their graduation exams, and nothing more.

    I am happy to see that there are people going against this trend and trying to show the students how the great ideas came about, to teach them curiosity, to think deeply.

  4. Trackback: Physics Viewpoint | What can you learn from Descartes?


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