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The Science Institute at Summer Classics

Information about the 2019 Summer Classics program will be posted February 1, 2019. To keep up to date, join the 2019 Summer Classics mailing list to receive e-notifications or a mailed brochure.

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 paradoxical ideas at the origins of calculus, the startling experiments and concepts of quantum theory, and the secret life of the ant.

The Science Institute is open to those who want to delve more deeply into the questions raised by science and mathematics and requires only an acquaintance with high-school mathematics.

Three weeks of seminar offerings run concurrently with Summer Classics. Two sessions daily: 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m.

Below is a sample schedule of science seminars from the 2018 program.

Week 1 | July 1-6

The Origins of Calculus

Phil Bartok and Guillermo Bleichmar

Developed by Newton and Leibniz in the 17th century, the branch of mathematics known as calculus has played a critical role in modern science and engineering. But what is calculus, and how was it developed? We begin with Newton’s forays into differential and integral calculus in his Principia Mathematica, then turn to Leibniz’s more abstract treatment of the same ideas. We examine the fundamental theorem of calculus, which asserts a surprisingly deep connection between the basic concepts of the derivative and the integral. Finally, we consider Bishop Berkeley’s famous critique of infinitesimals. Along the way, we study fascinating applications of calculus to real-world problems in science and economics. No prior knowledge is required, as we build our understanding from the ground up.

Week 2 | July 8-13

Quantum Theory

Grant Franks and Peter Pesic

Quantum theory is arguably the most radical and important innovation of 20th-century physics. We study its foundations by building small but faithful models of quantum states using simple devices with polarized light in order to present and discuss texts by Richard Feynman and Julian Schwinger, pioneers of modern quantum theory. Assuming no prior study of this material, all the needed mathematics is built up from the foundations.

Week 3 | July 15-20

Observing Ants: Mind, Complexity, and Society

Phil Bartok and Linda Wiener

Careful observation of ant and termite colonies reveals astonishingly complex and coordinated behaviors, so much so that one might think that some higher order intelligence must be at work. Eugene Marais’s The Soul of the White Ant and Deborah Gordon’s Ants at Work offer deep insights, based on decades of systematic and creative fieldwork, into the nature of instinct, learning, complexity, and social organization. But while they have much to teach us about organisms and their “minds,” Marais and Gordon also show us how to be careful observers of the natural world. Inspired by their studies, we use the morning sessions to undertake our own field work, both as a class and individually, and return to their texts in the afternoons. Participants need to be able to walk at least one half mile and be prepared for working outdoors.

Mr. Pesic, tutor emeritus and musician-in-residence, is the director of the Science Institute at St. John’s College, Santa Fe.