Dan Styer has been a professor of physics at Oberlin since 1985. He has
written a textbook on quantum mechanics, and will be on sabbatical during this
upcoming academic year to write another textbook on Einstein and relativity,
What made you think to teach these two physics courses, “Einstein
and Relativity” and “The Strange World of Quantum Mechanics,”
aimed towards students who claim to struggle with the sciences?
are and always have been completely selfish, which I think is the foundation of
most good things. When people do things not just because they want to slave away
for a good cause, but because they really want to do it. I enjoy exploring the
world around me, and I know as a physicist I have access to very powerful tools
to help me solve the questions that physicists ask. Sometimes I don’t
understand the tools...I always think of backpacking. If you were trying to
travel from Georgia to Maine, you would take a jet or something like that. If
you’re interested in only going from one place to another, you’d use
such a powerful tool. But if your goal was the journey, if you really wanted to
understand the material—the landscape between Georgia to Maine—the
best way is to hike the Appalachian Trail. It will take you four days rather
than two hours, but you will be able to feel it in your bones instead of just
saying, “I went from one place to another and the stewardess came by and
gave me a stale sandwich.”
So I was interested in trying to learn about the world around me without
using the powerful tools that I knew, and the only way I could force myself to
give up the tools was to teach it to students who didn’t need those tools,
and I have learned an enormous amount by teaching these courses. I feel so much
more comfortable with these subjects now, and more comfortable talking about the
subjects qualitatively when I sit down to solve a problem. I can understand the
character of the solution. It’s been a real joy.
Do you think this slower, more in depth teaching method should be applied
to all science courses?
Both methods are necessary and serve different
purposes. Tools are beautiful, just as jet planes are beautiful, and powerful.
And I admit it, when I can come up with slick arguments, I am just so proud of
myself. I know how to do them and I think they’re beautiful. It’s
really craftsmanship, and just as a furniture maker receives great satisfaction
at producing an elegant piece of furniture, I receive satisfaction by performing
an elegant experiment. It is such a wonderful feeling that it almost overwhelms
the need to be connected with nature.
What is this conference you’re heading off to on Friday?
has to do with an initiative by the National Science Foundation for what they
call “scientists in touch with society and society in touch with
science.” The question is, how do we get people as a whole to be in touch
with science? Large, large numbers of students have come up to me and have told
me how amazed or interested they are in these fields, and they talk to me about
how they have always been so frightened of science, always thought of science as
something both dull and frightening. To me that’s like saying life is dull
and frightening. Science talks about how to walk and what the sun is like...to
be frightened of science is to be frightened of sunshine, but also to be
frightened of darkness! And I’ve spoken with elementary school teachers
and they think science is frightening, too. And the idea that science is nothing
more than wonder in an organized fashion is totally foreign to these people, and
I succeed partly if students walk out of the class saying, “We live in a
wonderful universe and we are wonderful people and we can find out about our
Where do you think this attitude came from?
I look at the way my sons
are taught science, and I have to say, this is boring. This is in middle school
and it was better in elementary school. The way that students are taught science
is mostly through mindless vocabulary and complicated names for simple
phenomenan, and students have this attitude that science is nothing more than
learning the official name for the Canada goose.
How successful has your class been at changing the perception of science
for those students who are fearful of, or repelled by it?
really have an answer for that. It would be very interesting if I could have
survey information rather than anecdotal information, if I administered some
survey in the beginning of the term and the end of the term, or even two years
down the road, to trace their attitudes towards science. First of all, I’m
not interested in doing that, and second of all, I feel like I’d be prying
into students’ personal affairs.
One example I do have, however, was this one time when a former student of
mine approached my wife at the Oberlin bookstore. She went up to her and asked,
“Are you Mrs. Styer?” and my wife said, “yes.” And this
former student said, “I took ‘Einstein and Relativity’ with
your husband and it changed my life. I always thought science was boring.
I’m not going to become a scientist, but every time I walked into a
bookstore, the first section I check out is the science section because I know
it’s going to be interesting.” And that was really very wonderful to
What are your plans for next year?
I will be on sabbatical. I want to
gather up all the ideas that I have about teaching “Einstein and
Relativity” and write a book called Relativity for the Questioning
Mind to use in this course and hopefully other places as well. I’ve
started it and have lots of pieces here and there. Addison Wesley has interest
in publishing it.