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One True Path

January 29, 2002

Nick Marinello
Michael DeMocker

Don't get him started. Jim McGuire will talk your ears off. Jolt your brain with the electric sizzle of ideas. Pose questions you won't answer. Stymie your senses with the impenetrability of time and space. Exalt your spirit with the beauty of matter. Stay loose. Stay agile. Have fun. McGuire is.

Listen: "There is this wonderful, horrible sculpture by Salvadore Dali. It is of Newton, and it offended me greatly when I first saw it. He is holding an apple, but he has a hole in his head because he has no brain. Even more dramatic is that he has no heart. ..." Hold it--are we talking about science or art? Isn't it obvious? We're talking science, of course.

McGuire, the Murchison-Mallory Professor of Physics at Tulane, spends a lot of time looking into and fiddling with Planck's constant, energy non-conserving terms, time shifts, nano structures--you know, those kinds of things. He's fusion on two legs--a wound-up, ruddy-faced, slightly mussed-haired guy. A playful, edge-of-the-seat kind of guy who just wants to figure out how the world works. He frets about that Dali sculpture though, because he senses it embodies great truth.

Despite the advent of the so-called Information Age, many people are either uninformed about science and technology, don't trust it, or think it is superficial and meaningless. For all the cell phones and Palm Pilots in existence, despite the non-stop electronic murmur of a techno-mobilized world, to most people science and technology remain elusive, incomprehensible things.

"We still have this gap," says McGuire. "I think it was C.P. Snow who talked about the two cultures--the arts people and the science people--and the fact that there is a gap between them." McGuire has a hypothesis, however. He thinks he may have figured out a way to bridge the gap between scientists and the rest of us. It's an idea that has rattled like a loose electron around his brain for the last 30 years, and he thinks he has now found a way to connect the sciences and arts, the discoverers and communicators.

McGuire's Law goes something like this: If you can't get the scientists to write engagingly about what they do, then have writers do it for them. "One of the main challenges in teaching is how to teach across disciplines," he says. "How do you get somebody who is an expert in one area who is able to somehow communicate effectively to people in another area?" By the way, you'll have to excuse McGuire if he sees the world as a potpourri of problems to be solved.

Check out his Web site ( and find the following exhortation by ee cummings: "always the more beautiful answer who asks the more beautiful question." At any rate, McGuire has come up with what he thinks is a "beautiful answer" to the disconnect between science and society in a course entitled "Our Physical World," a little gem of pedagogy he christened at Tulane eight years ago, but that has roots in his earliest teaching days.

In fact, McGuire breaks into a fit of laughter when he thinks back to 1969 and his time at Texas A&M. "I got this crazy idea of teaching cultural physics to Texas Aggies. OK?," he says and laughs some more. There may be an inside joke here, but McGuire isn't sharing. Instead, he talks about his early interests in both physics and philosophy; how both disciplines, in their own ways, attempt to explain the world. He recalls his attempt to integrate issues of hard science and soft culture into a palatable course for the non-science students at A&M.

He then tells about his next teaching appointment at Kansas State University, where he was enlisted to teach a "physics for poets" course that had the onerous reputation of being a "pud" course. (In Kansas, "pud" isn't exactly praise.) "You were supposed to entertain them for an hour, three hours a week, and they'd go off and if they showed up for the test they passed the course." Pud, indeed. Which is why, when McGuire came to Tulane in 1991, he had no desire to teach dumbed-down science to anyone.

Rather, he wanted to see if he could create a course to get non-science students involved with and participate in science. He had the blessing of Tulane donor Meredith Mallory Jr. and then-provost Jim Kilroy, who both believed that the Murchison-Mallory Chair should have a strong teaching component. McGuire had a notion to develop Our Physical World as a serious course for students who wanted to tackle the great ideas of science and technology, but who would be more comfortable in doing so with words rather than numbers. Sounds good, but how do you make it work?

Something Important

Remember, McGuire is first and foremost a scientist. So the initial version of Our Physical World was engineered as a problem-solving course that introduced scientific ideas through creative projects. Although he attempted to make the physics problems "look kind of jazzy," McGuire still wasn't satisfied with the degree of hands-on work his students were putting into the class. "The students did not want to solve physics problems," he quips. "Now, I can't understand that, can you?"

Then, as any good physicist will, he had a kind of epiphany. After several years of teaching the course, he had yet to fashion an appropriate writing requirement. He wanted to get the students excited about expounding on atoms and waves, work and energy, Einstein and Pythagoras, Newton's six laws and the periodic table.

But how? "I didn't want to make it too technical," he recalls. "You are not writing for Scientific American and certainly not for Physical Review. You don't care about the mathematics." And so it came to him like an apple falling from a tree. "Airline magazines," he says, adding that in terms of tone, those short, breezy, non-technical stories that appear in the glossy, colorful publications stuffed into the backs of jumbo-jet seats were exactly what he was looking for.

"It is perfect, because you go into class with a twinkle in your eye and say 'airline magazine,' and the students say, 'Oh, I can do that.'" McGuire confesses some scholarly sleight-of-hand. "They think it's easy because it is not technical and there's no math in it, but when they sit down to write, it is not easy." During the last five years, the writing component has become the core of the curriculum, as students must turn in weekly written assignments that comprise 70 percent of their grades.

To a large extent, McGuire considers Our Physical World to be a creative writing class. Read the following, snatched from his syllabus: "The essay topic assigned is to be discussed and related to a topic outside of science. Simply doing outside research on the topic is usually not sufficient. The idea is to integrate science with something else." It is that "something else" that gives the assignments their spark. It is the act of leaping from one idea to another that excites McGuire, and is really what he hopes to see in the papers. He admits that grading the papers was at first a daunting task.

"As a scientist it scares me to grade on a subjective level," he says, "because I am not familiar with it. I don't know how to go in and justify why a Picasso is better than a piece of stuff I can get at a K-Mart." So he put in guidelines. The criterion was fairly simple. Is the essay appropriate for an airline magazine? Will it interest people? Is it creative writing? "What I really care about is whether they really understand the issues we discussed that particular week. I don't want some fuzzy little detail. What I want students to come away with is a general education on why entropy is such a big deal, why anybody cares that things don't go forward and backward in time."

Each week McGuire meets with a graduate-student grader to go over the essays and assign grades on a 10-point scale. "By some miracle, the grading actually works," he says. "I have had several students over the last several years say to me that this is the fist course at Tulane where they have actually been encouraged to do creative writing." And, for the most part, the students get it. As enrollment in the class soared, McGuire began receiving from his students what he calls "special work."

One student turned in an essay that examined exponential population growth by following the imagined progeny of television's "Survivor" castaways. Another student created a comical scenario in which the grandson of physicist Erwin Schrodinger attempts to debunk his grandfather's famous cat who, according to quantum mechanics, was proven to be half dead and half alive. A third student wrote of a minor Mardi Gras accident that leads to a space ride with Albert Einstein and a pleasant discourse on relativity.

Then there is the young woman who turned in her essay in the form of a chocolate cake. The topic was carbon, the basis for everything that is organic, including dessert. Concept goes a long way with McGuire, it seems. Just look around his office. His students' artwork is all over his room. Cosmic, organic stuff. Teasing stuff filled with riddles and ideas. They are extra credit projects that McGuire allows his students. They can get a full letter grade's lift out of doing an art project.

The premise for every project is simple. "Do something important," McGuire advises them. "It drives them nuts. They come back and want me to tell them what's important, but that's not my job," he says. "I tell them to express the importance in your own way so that you can communicate it to someone else."

Beautiful Pictures

Can you count all the stars in the sky? Not likely, but you probably know there are "billions and billions" of them, thanks to the late cosmologist-showman Carl Sagan. Sagan presents an interesting paradox for McGuire and fellow scientists.

"We looked on in horror at some of the things that Carl Sagan said on TV from time to time," says McGuire. "He was missing some of the details and we disagreed with him. We thought he was oversimplifying and we thought he was taking something that was really carefully done and distorting it. He was turning on million of people to what we were doing and we thought he was messing up our beautiful pictures."

Sagan may well have been the most popular "hybrid" from the arts and science communities, and his ability to talk in two languages gave him a special place in society, a kind of techno-shaman pointing to the heavens with unbound, unending awe. McGuire demurs that he, too, is a hybrid, but is fascinated with the idea. He tells the story of Walter Sullivan, who for many years was the science writer for the New York Times.

"It was said of Walter Sullivan that he would listen to a scientific lecture, somehow pick out the key idea, and go home and enter this writing process. And in the next day or two an article about the lecture would appear in the paper, and frequently the scientist who had delivered the talk would read Sullivan and for the first time understand the significance of his own work."

McGuire believes that Sullivan not only reported on the lecture, but "polished" it into a more consumable thing. "And that is not a skill most scientists and engineers are trained to have," he says. The problem in physics, says McGuire, is that there are not enough Carl Sagans who are willing to explain how physics works. Therefore, he figures, there needs to be more Walter Sullivans. "There is a real need for people to write effectively about science and technology," he says. "And I don't think it is so important that you understand the in-depth science as it is that you can clearly explain the science."

It's not an easy thing to do. In explaining his current work, McGuire begins by saying, "The easy way to describe quantum time is. ..." and then enthusiastically launches into a discussion of the connections that he and an associate researcher have made between "energy space" and "time space."

He talks about the "one true path," which is the most efficient route between two points, and how the manifest destiny of that path may be violated by quantum mechanics in a way that creates an "envelope of trajectories," thereby enabling a freedom of uncertainty. Whew. Where, oh where, is Walter Sullivan when you need him? This is strange, dense stuff that sounds like the language of Pluto to the untrained ear.

Yet, McGuire and his colleague will soon see their work on quantum time appear in Europe's Journal of Physics B, a publication not likely to be found on board most commercial aircraft.

Great Ideas

McGuire wants you to know about what he does, about what his colleagues do, because he thinks it is important. It's what got him into the business to begin with. "My earliest view of physics was if I could figure out how to do physics I would maybe be able to get closer to a permanent truth than if I went in some other direction. So I chose physics because I had this great dream of figuring out the pathway to Truth."

Still, McGuire knows there may be other trajectories to Truth, and he wants his students to be exposed to them. He regularly invites a close friend who is a Christian Scientist to speak to his Our Physical World class. "Which is almost heretical," he says, "because her point of view is that material is really something that is worse than irrelevant. That the problems that humans run into arise because we haven't escaped from the material existence in which we find ourselves trapped.

The things that really matter, she says, are infinite wisdom, infinite beauty, infinite love of God." McGuire is not about to take issue with this, but he seems to relish the irony. "Her point of view is that matter is insignificant. My point of view is that it is what I do for a living." And while most people may envision the scientific life as one that is played out before Bunsen burners, slide rules or mass spectrometers, McGuire, perhaps like Sagan, sees a more distant horizon.

"One of the revolutions many of us have discovered is that science is not so much mathematical as it is conceptual," he says, adding, "The great ideas are conceptual ideas." While it is nice to have the mathematics to be able to describe these ideas in a detailed way, the wonder remains with the powerful ideas themselves. Which, McGuire reminds us, is the theme of his course. "It is important to give students an opportunity not just to think things nobody has ever thought, but to insist that they make the effort to do it."

Geez, to think things that nobody has ever thought. How beautiful and scary and exciting. How--infinite. Somewhere out there a cat who is half dead and half alive sings to a moon whose orbit is described in absolute precision. In between lay the possibilities.

Nick Marinello is a senior editor in the Tulane publications office and editor of the faculty-staff paper, Inside Tulane.


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