I’m about 2/3rds of the way through my Physics 125 course at the University of Tampa. This course is one of several natural science classes required of students who are not majoring in science. The other two are an astronomy course and a chemistry course. These students also have to take a biology course.
The text is Physics and Technology for Future Presidents: An Introduction to the Essential Physics Every World Leader Needs to Know, by Univ. of Calif. Physics professor Richard Muller.
The text and the course are nearly devoid of mathematics beyond multiplication and division, and interesting (to me and I hope to the students) applications of the major principles are everywhere. I do a 10 minute or so Science in the News talk each day, and I have had no trouble finding breaking news that is often directly connected to the material the students are studying.
I like the students, and they are working hard, I think, but some of them are stressed out. So I’ve decided to give them a sermon and pep talk tomorrow. Here’s a draft.
Dr. Ron Vaugh (the President of the University, who visited our class), the faculty, I, your parents, and other Americans wish for all of you to be happy, productive, creative people. We want you to be prepared for the adult world you are about to enter. We want you to understand the world that our generations, your parents’ and grandparents’, and our ancestors have bequeathed to you.
We are proud of our achievements and regret our failures. One of our achievements is the discovery of the empirical method for learning about nature. Another is the idea of the sovereignty of a nation’s people. Some others might include the idea of free markets, freedom of conscience, the end of slavery. Among our failures have been World Wars I and II and the Holocaust. The good guys won these conflicts, but they arose within Western civilization and cost us and the rest of the world tens of millions of dead. We are energetic, creative, and violent.
Over the past 25 centuries some of our best, most creative, and deepest thinkers have wrestled with important questions. What is the meaning of a good life? What is the best form of government? How should we organize our relations with each other and our economic activities? What is the nature of the world in which we live and what is our proper relation to it? Among the thinkers who have pondered these and other questions are the writers of the Hebrew Bible, say around 500 BCE, the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, around 300 BCE, and the Gospel writers, around 100 CE. Of course, there have been many others since.
We want you to think about these questions and the many proposed answers too. Although people have been thinking about these questions for a long time, we have not arrived at settled answers. We believe, however, that your lives will be better, happier, and more fulfilling if you have thought about these matters and engaged in conversation with the best thinkers of today and the past.
We would also like to prepare you with the knowledge you will need in 5 or 10 or 20 years. But there is a problem. We don’t know what your world will be like, and we don’t know what you will need to know. In our modern era, human life transforms more from one generation to the next than it used to change in many centuries. Indeed, the idea of progress in human life, one of our new and powerful ideas, has supplanted the ideas of never ending stability or even of inevitable decay from a past golden age that have prevailed for many centuries.
We are studying one of the great streams of progress that has transformed everyone’s lives; natural science. In natural science through the efforts of men and women of many nations, such as Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, we have gained knowledge about the world and control over much of it. There is plenty left to learn. It appears that nature operates through great principles, such as the laws of thermodynamics (conservation of energy and energy’s inevitable dissipation), and a few forces, such as gravitation and electricity and magnetism. It didn’t have to be this way.
We believe that we have correctly found and mostly understood those of these great principles that create the natural world as it effects our lives. Thus, while the many applications of these principles in society will change, the principles will remain, or at least our understanding of them will change more slowly. We believe that whatever problems your generation will face in 20 years or more will be understandable with these great principles, although you may have to invent new ideas or discover new knowledge to deal with them. Although we want you to know how to use Word and Excel, they are not likely to be around in 20 years, but no one knows what will replace them. The same goes for Twitter, Facebook, and Candy Crush. The English language and the principles of accounting and mathematics will still be around.
For this sermon, shall I call it The Sermon on the Ground Floor, I will take as my text, the great laws of thermodynamics. I will describe today’s topic, global warming and the Earth’s energy balance, but I am going to be careful to point out at each step, staring with the Sun’s fusion reactions, the way that the major principles of thermodynamics help us to understand what is happening. I want to help you to see what appears on the surface to be an overwhelming amount of new and distinct material is really the repeated application of a few powerful principles, along with a few specialized definitions to provide the proper language in any particular area. As I describe to you some of the material on the Earth’s energy balance, I will point to and cite chapter and verse from what we have studied already, and some principles to come in the next chapters.