Teaching Interests

What kinds of things do I like to teach? Well, first of all, there is the obvious: astronomy classes, both at the major and non-major levels. These guys are a lot of fun for me, which is why I went into the field in the first place. Somewhat less obvious are the physics classes I'd like to teach. While it's easy to think of me as an astronomer, I tend to regard myself as more of an applied physicist where the application is to astrophysical situations. Specifically, I'm a specialist in classical mechanics and would very much enjoy teaching classes covering that field. I also dearly love E&M (for many of the same reasons as I love Classy, actually) and want to try my hand at that some time. Of course, there is introductory physics to be taught, which is always fun (it's your best chance to reach a lot of students and to, hopefully, help them see how amazingly beautiful physics is). Someday, I would like to try teaching classes like Quantum Mechanics or Statistical Mechanics; they'd be a real challenge, but I feel that occasionally teaching classes outside of our obvious comfort zones is good for us as teachers.

Those are the tradiational classes I'm keen on. But there is another group of class I salivate at the thought of teaching. Most of these are more seminar-oriented classes (which suits me fine, I prefer not to lecture). Here are a few that I've been considering:

Bad Science

The aim of the class is to look at a mix of common misconceptions, hoaxes, and times when scientists themselves are wrong to help students see what science is and how it can help them. An important secondary goal is for students to develop what Carl Sagan called a "baloney detector": a set of intellectual tools that help us to quickly assess if a claim is likely to be right or wrong without needing to be an expert in the field. Otherwise intelligent people are often taken in by hoaxes and bad reasoning when, if they had only learned to ask the right questions, they could have spotted the trouble easily.

Texts for this class could include Carl Sagan's Demon-Haunted World, Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy, or Michael Shermer's Why People Believe Weird Things. (There are many other books out there, of course.) Apart from discussing the reading material, class activities would include developing simple tests to check claims, analyzing scientific claims for credibility, and student presentations of "bad science" topics of their choosing.

"Science" and Technology in Antiquity

Most people today thing of science as a modern development, which is true in a sense. (The scientific methodology used today is a relativity recent development.) However, the ancients (Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, etc.) were able to reason their ways through a great many problems towards understanding the world around us. They realized that the Earth was round almost two millenia before Magellen circled the globe. They invented the steam engine as well as a host of clever mechanical devices. And much, much more. Even their great mistakes (like the heliocentric solar system model) were often very reasonably deduced.

This class would consider the historical context of the science and technology as this has bearing on how the science played out. Activities include student presentations, repeating famous experiments (Archimedes' buoyancy experiment, measuring the circumferance of the Earth, and so forth), and trying to construct some simple ancient technologies.

The Evolutions of Scientific Ideas

When students take a science clas, we try to teach them that science is a fluid, evolving entity. Unfortunately, we tend to teaching them in a manner that conveys the impression that our current theories are facts and correct rather than best guesses arrived at after many mistakes. This class aims to address this problem by following a few ideas in science through the centuries as our understanding changed, studying how and why each shift occured. Ideas that can be followed include combustion (which provides a great way to track understanding of chemistry), comets, motion, and light.


John Weiss