“Gen Ed” Relativity: Pondering Books

This coming fall term, I’ll be teaching Astronomy 052, “Relativity, Black Holes, and Quasars,” because the guy who has traditionally taught it (a radio astronomer who studies active galactic nuclei) has to do other courses instead. But I said “Well, hell, I’ve written a popular audience book explaining relativity. I can teach that.” And since I get to make teaching assignments (the one and only positive feature of being department chair), well, I put myself down to teach it. Now, of course, I find myself thinking about ideas for that class, months in advance, when I ought to be working on other things.

The sub-100 number indicates that this is a “Gen Ed” class, aimed at non-science majors– we do an upper-level relativity and cosmology course as well, that I’m really not qualified to teach. I haven’t taught “Gen Ed” before, and I have some philosophical issues with the whole concept, but we’re committed to doing it under the current curricular structure. I’m going to be stuck with about half of the class being seniors who need the credit to graduate, a group with a vile reputation among science faculty, so I did up some posters to hang around campus in hopes of filling the rest of the class with students who might actually have some interest in the subject. One of these is reproduced above as the “featured image.”

The big issue with this is what to use as texts for the class. While I put a cover image of my book in the lower corner of the posters, I don’t actually intend to use it as a text for the class. Partly because it’s not really written as a textbook, but mostly because it feels like kind of a dick move to force students to buy my book (not that the resulting $30 in royalties is going to be life-changing, but it just looks bad). And I also think one of the points of a book used in class ought to be to provide a different slant on the material than you’ll get from the lectures. The best explanations I have of the ideas from relativity are the ones in the book, and if those don’t work for a student, I’m not going to come up with something different and better on the spot. But a book by somebody else might offer a different slant that a particular student might find more appealing, and if it doesn’t, well, I can use the explanation I did with the dog.

But then there’s the question of what to use other than that. My colleague has always used Mook and Vargish, because it’s non-mathematical and comprehensive. From the couple of brief looks I’ve had at it, though, it also seems to be very much a textbook, with all that implies, both good and bad– it starts back with ancient Greek philosophy, and works forward from there, which just strikes me as deadly dull. (Also, it’s not entirely clear to me whether it’s really in print…) On the other hand, the books I read and liked when I was working on my book were David Mermin’s It’s About Time and Tatsu Takeuchi’s An Illustrated Guide to Relativity. Both of those involve wayyyyyy too much math, though, given what I’ve been told about the audience for these classes.

I’m also thinking about this in terms of the stuff I wrote about “liberal arts” education back in January. The goal here has to be to give some flavor of how science works and what relativity about presented in a format that students from non-scientific background will find congenial. Which might sort of argue for a grand historical sweep, as history majors might find all the preliminary material about Aristotle and Galileo to be more appealing than the physics content. But then, you’re spending a huge amount of time talking about stuff that’s ultimately pretty irrelevant, both to relativity as a subject, and the modern world in general.

(I might find this material more appealing if I were actually an astronomer. But I’m just not fired up to talk about the observational evidence for heliocentrism, and that kind of thing.)

Which is not to say that there isn’t some merit to a historical approach. But I’m thinking something more like Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincaré’s Maps instead, which has some nice historical context-setting, but doesn’t go all that far back. It also puts the focus squarely on timekeeping, which is much more my kind of thing, and fits well with the stuff I like from Mermin and Takeuchi. I might also throw in something like Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams for a more literary take on the whole thing (though I’d need to re-read it first– I read it when it was fairly new, but that’s twenty years ago, now…).

Of course, then I would need to find something to use to talk about General Relativity and black holes– I put a picture of Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Death by Black Hole, but that’s even less of a textbook than my book. Kip Thorne’s book is probably a bit much, and also out of print, but maybe I could just get the library to scan relevant bits. Or maybe throw them Caleb Scharf’s Gravity’s Engines. Or…

Anyway, that’s a bit of thinking-out-loud about this. I’m sort of curious to hear what other people think, if anyone reads this far. Is there a really outstanding non-mathematical survey of relativity out there that I ought to be using? I have the new book by Jeffrey Bennett, and read about a third of it on planes last week, and it might work, but his use of relativistic mass bugs me. Are there great treatments of subsets of the subject matter that I should be combining? Should I just be a dick and make them buy my book?

18 thoughts on ““Gen Ed” Relativity: Pondering Books

  1. Kip Thorne’s Black Holes and Time Warps is pretty awesome. I had to read it for a relativity class I took online that was aimed at teachers.

  2. One of my teachers assigned his own book, but bought all of us a beer on the last day of class, effectively spending his revenue.

  3. I really like Taylor and Wheeler’s “Spacetime Physics”, but it might be too mathematically advanced for your course.

  4. I don’t use a textbook when I teach the “Introduction to Special Relativity” class for our freshmen. Sure, I tell them that they may want to read some small subset of the material in the “Spacetime Physics” book by Taylor and Wheeler, but that’s just as a supplement. I provide all the material on my own website, and it seems to fill 25 class meetings just fine. You’re welcome to use any or all of it:


    One of the things I’ve learned after teaching it several times is that I have more fun, and the students have more fun, if they work through at least one example each day in class. The pattern “lecture for 10 minutes, give simple problem for 5 minutes, lecture for 10 minutes, give another problem for 10 minutes, talk for 10 minutes” is more fun than “lecture for 50 minutes”. I have no idea whether they learn the material better or worse this way.

  5. Flatland is a good primer for thinking about higher dimensions, something you have to do in relativity.

  6. I’d suggest looking into the history of relativity itself both on the natural philosophy and science side and on the societal side. Some of your students might want to explore why this idea in 1905 also showed up in art, literature, and morality. What was in the newspapers back then that made it as revolutionary as “de Revolutionibus”?

    I missed the post on “the checking of boxes”, but I think I understand your problem because of what I saw happen elsewhere. You start a liberal arts college, and it attracts people like Chad Orzel and myself and a good friend from college. I can see us talking long into the night about all sorts of things that were Not Our Major, as well as things that were. These people do well in life, with high acceptance rates and success in grad school, med school, etc. The college makes sure this becomes well known, and a later wave of students apply and attend because of a cargo-cult-like belief that it was the college, rather than the kind of students at the college and the kinds of things that they did and read, that mattered. I think there is a good chance this is happening at any liberal arts college that has a reputation for producing quality scientists and engineers who will have a high income potential.

    My answer to some questions you get when advising would be “why the heck did you decide to go here if not to take those kinds of classes?”

    As for engineering and physics, I think we could learn something from getting together people who teach junior mechanics, whether to engineering or physics majors, and seeing what the common ground might be. Remember, ABET is just an engineer’s way of telling him or herself to do what they already know needs to be done. Maybe we both want less breadth and more time trying to solve non-trivial problems that require thinking rather than just applying a memorized algorithm. Or maybe we are both complaining that they didn’t learn something because they saw it but didn’t LEARN it because its importance is not being taught in the culture of that college.

  7. Yes, make them buy your book. Consistency of lectures and texts is a good thing. Then return your royalties to them by spending them on a class party or field trip or something.

  8. My impression is that relativity didn’t actually get a lot of public attention until 1919, when the apparent confirmation of general relativity by the Sobral eclipse expedition made Einstein a huge celebrity (though newspaper accounts also stressed how incomprehensible the theory was, and did little to actually explain it; that it was *general* relativity being confirmed probably didn’t help).

  9. …But it would be interesting to explore what then ensued in the popular culture of the time. Einstein’s Jewishness was a huge focus of attention; he was suddenly the most famous Jew in the world and also a giant magnet for antisemitic attacks.

    There was a certain amount of theatrical rejection of relativity that really stemmed from that. Antisemitism probably also was connected to the confused ideas about relativity meaning that there was no absolute truth, etc., since it fed into standard ideas of Jews being subversives and “rootless cosmopolitans”.

    But that might be outside of the scope of a class on the science, to some degree…

  10. Special relativity didn’t draw that much general public attention, but it did carry some weight within physics. There’s a great recommendation letter from Planck for one of Einstein’s faculty positions (I forget if it was Zurich or Berlin) that praises his work on relativity, but asks the hiring department not to hold the photoelectric effect paper against him.

    The Jewish thing is also big. There’s another letter somebody wrote on Einstein’s behalf that makes a big deal out of how he doesn’t actually display a bunch of appalling antisemitic stereotypes. It’s really kind of jarring to see just how bad things were at that time.

    (This is important to remember when people bring up Einstein’s outsider status as support for their wacky out-of-the-mainstream theory. He wasn’t stuck as a patent clerk because people thought he was a crank, he was stuck as a patent clerk because it’s never been easy to get a faculty job, and if you were a Jew in Europe in 1900 trying to get a faculty job, the market really, really sucked.)

  11. I hadn’t really thought about the Jewish aspect of things until you mentioned it, but I might have to see if there’s a way to spend a class or so on that. I think that’s probably another area where bringing in some non-scientific content would help make the class work better for the target population. Have to check out some biographies, I guess…

  12. There’s a great recommendation letter from Planck for one of Einstein’s faculty positions (I forget if it was Zurich or Berlin) that praises his work on relativity, but asks the hiring department not to hold the photoelectric effect paper against him.

    The irony being that the latter paper was what the Nobel Committee cited in awarding Einstein the prize.

  13. The other thing I really like about Planck running down Einstein’s photoelectric theory is that it was based on Planck’s own work on black-body radiation.

  14. Why not use Einstein´s Über die spezielle und die allgemeine Relativitätstheori? As it is translated to Swedish there must be an English translation.
    Anders Eg

  15. I’ve been doing some thinking about the philosophical implications of both Relativity and Incompleteness. don’t have any literature to recommend, but a class on “Is man the measure of things?” would be good for non-math types

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