St. John’s Tutor—and Program—Honored by the History of Science Society
This fall, the History of Science Society, the leading international association in its field, bestowed the prestigious Joseph H. Hazen Education Prize on Peter Pesic, a recently retired tutor from St. John’s College, Santa Fe, who continues to serve as Musician-in-Residence there. According to the Society’s press release, Pesic received the award for navigating the interdisciplinary curriculum at St. John’s with aplomb and engaging his students in canonical texts as well as in hands-on observations and laboratory experiences that replicate famous experiments where possible.
“His students explore the fundamental scientific questions posed from the time of Aristotle to modern physics and genetics, but are asked to think critically on their own,” the release states.
“I consider this as recognition of St. John’s College much more than of me,” Pesic says of the award. “I certainly didn’t invent the St. John’s program, or its focus on the history of science. Fundamentally, I think the Society was impressed by what we do here: every student studies the history of science really seriously, in an historical way, through reading original texts and going to the board to relive the demonstrations, experiments, and observations. We want to know what questions drove various theories. What were the original scientists trying to find out? What kind of understanding does each successive theory, or account of the world, give us?”
This way of learning science, as well as mathematics, often completely changes the outlook of students who previously struggled with these subjects, because it allows them to ask their own questions honestly.
“Textbooks tend to present their material as if it is all very simple, so that if you’re having difficulty, it’s because you’re dumb or not quick enough. At St. John’s, concepts that prove difficult are discussed for their fundamental significance, as opposed to being treated as embarrassingly elementary work,” he says. “For students who were already comfortable with science and mathematics, our Program offers a completely different set of advantages. We can reconsider fundamental assumptions and ask whether and why they’re true, or if they’re true at all. In so doing, one learns much about what it means to have an original scientific insight—and hence how one might find new insight.”
He recalls that, when he began teaching Freshman Laboratory at St. John’s, at first he wondered whether it was worthwhile to discuss whether or not atoms exist. He had a doctorate in physics and assumed that atoms were real. But as time went on, he understood that he needed to reconsider the whole issue. “Then I realized that this really was a question, a genuine problem: What does it take to know whether atoms really exist? Do you need complex modern experimental equipment? What evidence should persuade a rational person that atoms are physically real, as opposed to a theory, a model, or a metaphor?”
Pesic believes mathematics, specifically algebra, is another area usually presented as though it’s supposed to be simple, which can be demoralizing for people who feel its difficulties. “Sometimes you need to explore what is weird and difficult about an idea, and to do that, you have to ask questions. Our great strength at the college is trying to find out what the questions are. If some theory is indeed an ‘answer,’ we need to ask: to what question is it an answer? What is the underlying problem and why should we care about it? Most schools just say ‘you have to learn algebra.’ At St. John’s, students consider the deeper significance of learning to think algebraically; by comparison with everyday number concepts, thinking algebraically is like travelling to a new world. If this essential difference and even strangeness is acknowledged and explored, students feel far better prepared to adjust to this new world.”
Pesic earned his A.B. from Harvard University and his M.S and Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. He began teaching at St. John's College in 1980 and is currently a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a Fellow of the American Physical Society, and an Associate of the Physics Department at Harvard University. He is the author of Labyrinth: A Search for the Hidden Meaning of Science, Seeing Double: Shared Identities in Physics, Philosophy, and Literature, Abel's Proof: An Essay on the Sources and Meaning of Mathematical Unsolvability, and Sky in a Bottle, all published by MIT Press, which next spring will publish his new book, Music and the Making of Modern Science. He regularly plays piano in concerts at St. John’s.
Walter Sterling, dean of St. John’s College, Santa Fe, described Pesic as “simply an excellent classroom teacher. He received the highest praise—for his dynamism as a teacher and colleague, for his embodiment of our philosophy of teachers as fellow Socratic learners, and for his enormous breadth of learning and interest across disciplines. As a colleague, I know students admire him for his great personal warmth, enthusiasm, and good humor, and for his wisdom and erudition.”
“We ask questions that tend to be neglected in the science curriculums at other schools. The History of Science Society is recognizing that,” says Pesic. “We’re studying science within an integrated curriculum in which we also read philosophy, literature, and music, and study languages. The great scientists all came from this kind of education, up to and including Einstein. Those scientists were approaching ideas with that kind of breadth, which is hidden from us if we think of them just as specialists. But Einstein read widely in philosophy and literature, as well as science, and discussed these texts with his friends. That’s just what we do at St. John’s.”