At St. John’s we do not subscribe to the sharp separation of scientific studies from the humanities, as if they were distinct and autonomous domains of learning. We believe the richest encounter with one dimension of human thinking grows out of a lively encounter with the others.
In the three-year laboratory program at St. John's, students learn not only from reasoned discourse, but also from hands-on observation and analysis. Relying as much as possible on primary texts and replicating experiments whenever possible, students consider the fundamental questions of scientists throughout the ages, exploring the theories of Ptolemy, Copernicus, and Kepler to those of Newton and Einstein; following the revolutionary thought and crucial experiments of scientists such as William Harvey in the 18th century and Watson and Crick in the 20th century.
A laboratory section consists of 14 to 16 students working under the guidance of a tutor, with the help of more advanced students serving as assistants. Labs meet two times a week, with one longer session for experiments and one shorter session for discussion.
Freshmen develop the skills of careful observation, dissection, measurement, and experimentation, as well as learning how to record what they observe in drawings, symbols, graphs, and mathematical expressions. The year is divided into what could be classified as biology, physics, and chemistry sequences, although at the college we approach the natural sciences as parts of a coherent whole. Students begin with the study of plants and animals, reading texts such as Aristotle's Parts of Animals and On the Soul, or Harvey’s On the Motion of the Heart and Blood, and observing and dissecting plants and animals. Later, in a segment on measurement and equilibrium, students inquire into the foundations of a mathematical comprehension of nature, reading works by Archimedes, Pascal, Black, and Fahrenheit. In a section on the constitution of bodies, students recreate crucial experiments described in Lavoisier's Elements of Chemistry and explore the origins of the modern atomic theory developed by Dalton, Gay-Lussac, Avogadro, Cannizzaro, and Mendeleev.
Juniors begin by examining the dynamics of projectiles, falling bodies, and colliding bodies, and discover its surprising connection to questions of optics. The second semester investigates the phenomena of electricity and magnetism, and culminates in a return to optics as students analyze the mathematical application of waves to the phenomena of light.
The main thread of the fall term is motion, its character and causes. Classes consider attempts, beginning with Galileo, to replace Aristotelian notions of causality. They explore concepts such as Descartes’ quantity of motion, Leibniz’s “living force,” Newton’s force, Mayer’s causa, and Maxwell’s treatment of work, kinetic and potential energy, and heat. In the spring term, the focus shifts to electricity and magnetism, and the challenge of accounting for them in ways that can be reconciled with the earlier dynamics of moving bodies and wave-based accounts of light. Students read works by Franklin, Gilbert, Ampere, Coulomb, Faraday, and Maxwell, recreate experiments as much as possible, and design experiments of their own.
In many ways, the work of the senior year is a return to questions students first confronted as freshmen. During the first semester, the senior laboratory takes up anew the theory of atomism – but the atom itself has become the object of study. Prepared by work with electrical phenomena, students focus on the questions of atomic stability that led to the revolutionary quantum hypothesis of Bohr and the wave mechanics of de Broglie and Schrödinger. Through a sequence of historic scientific papers and related experiments, students encounter the mathematical equivalence of seemingly incompatible descriptions of the electron: particle or wave, discrete entity or continuous function. In doing so, they directly focus on the question of what we can and cannot know in the study of physics, thus deepening their understanding of the natural world.
In the spring, the senior laboratory returns to the study of living organisms. After examining the evidence and arguments Darwin presents in support of his theory of evolution by natural selection, students turn to Mendel’s studies of certain traits of inheritance in the pea plant. They explore the synthesis of evolution and genetics, as well as developments in cellular and molecular biology and ecology that burgeoned in the twentieth century. Along the way, questions arise about whether there is purpose in nature, whether there are natural kinds, what distinguishes living from non-living, whether living things have wholeness, and if so, how we might articulate what is responsible for it.