‘As is natural of an academic’

by reestheskin on 11/12/2015

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‘Now Weinberg has added another credential to his crowded vita: historian of science. In his past writings, he had mainly concerned himself with the modern era of physics and astronomy, from the late nineteenth century to the present—a time, he says, when “the goals and standards of physical science have not materially changed.” Yet to appreciate how those goals and standards took shape, he realized he would have to dig deeper into the history of science. So, “as is natural for an academic,” he volunteered to teach a course on the subject—in this case, to undergraduates with no special background in science or mathematics. Then he immersed himself in the primary and secondary literature. The result is To Explain the World, which takes us all the way from the first glimmerings of science in ancient Greece, through the medieval world, both Christian and Islamic, and down to the Newtonian revolution and beyond.’

In a review, by Jim Holt,of ‘To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science’, by Steven Weinberg.

The problem is that this is no longer natural or even encouraged of an academic. And if the writings of Weinberg I have read are anything to go by, this course must have been something special. I can remember the late John Ziman telling me that having been appointed to a lectureship in physics at Cambridge, he realised that there was no suitable text for his Cambridge undergraduates in the area that interested him. So, he spent two years writing such a text (which sold well for many years, he added). He observed that no longer would a UK university consider some behaviour appropriate: what about the REF! This tells us something about great thinkers, deep domain expertise, and how explanatory ability is the crux of great teaching. And about universities, and their troubled relation with teaching — and academics.