The Science Institute at Summer Classics
2020 seminar topics will be available through our mailing list in late January and online on February 3.
2020 topics will be on cosmology, astronomy, and topology.
Below is the 2019 program information, to offer a sample of past seminars topics.
Spend Your Summer Exploring Probability, Quantum Entanglement, and General Relativity
The Science Institute draws on St. John’s College’s long tradition of studying science through the discussion of original texts, emphasizing hands-on involvement and experiments. Each weeklong session is an intensive immersion in landmark topics and texts, with twice-daily seminars centered on discussion among participants.
Rather than viewing science as an edifice of facts, we encounter it through the living
questions it poses and, in so doing, reenact the experience of scientific discovery. By
encouraging each other to express and engage with those questions, we open ourselves to the wonder of inquiry into the mysteries of nature.
Join us this summer to explore the origins and meaning of probability, the paradoxes of quantum entanglement, and the mathematical delights of general relativity.
The Science Institute is open to those who want to delve more deeply into the questions raised by science and mathematics. The subjects covered during the first two sessions—probability in week one and quantum entanglement in week two—require only an acquaintance with high-school mathematics. The third week’s seminar on general relativity requires a fearless attitude toward equations and a basic knowledge of calculus.
Mr. Pesic, tutor emeritus and musician-in-residence at St. John’s College, Santa Fe,
is the director of the Science Institute.
Three weeks of seminar offerings run concurrently with Summer Classics. Two sessions daily: 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m.
Week 1 | July 7–12
The Origins of Probability
Guillermo Bleichmar and Peter Pesic
In the 17th century, various thinkers began to explore the possibility that chance might be subject to rules that could be studied mathematically. The analysis of simple games of chance eventually led to the discipline of probability, which would forever alter our conception of causality, nature, and the place of human action in a world of random possibilities. We study the rise of this probabilistic world view in texts by Pascal, Fermat, Huygens, and Laplace.
Week 2 | July 14–19
Quantum Entanglement: Bell’s Theorem and the Bohr-Einstein Controversy
Phil LeCuyer and Peter Pesic
Quantum theory is arguably the most radical aspect of modern physics. Though it has met every experimental test during the past century and has led to our present “wired” world, quantum theory still challenges comprehension. Albert Einstein argued that it led to correlations between distant events that, in his view, were “spooky,” because they seemed to violate fundamental ideas about causality and action at a distance. We study his arguments and his ensuing dialogue with Niels Bohr, who defended quantum theory against his critique. We then consider a theorem by John Bell that led to experimental tests of Einstein’s arguments, concluding with ongoing attempts to interpret quantum theory in terms of many worlds, as well as other interpretations.
Week 3 | July 21–26
General Relativity: A Trip to the Fourth Dimension
Most popular expositions of Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity avoid dealing with his actual equations. This limits any deeper understanding. In contrast, we study the math involved in his equations, discussing in detail how they are derived and what they mean. If you are comfortable with high school algebra, have taken a beginning calculus course, and are not afraid of equations, you can do it. We go through a concise exposition of Einstein’s field equations by Lillian Lieber, which Einstein himself “warmly recommended” as “clear and vivid.” Her book is a classic that embraces the mathematics other books avoid, highlighting its beauty and intelligibility. In addition, we read sections from Einstein’s 1916 paper that introduced general relativity.