How Newton’s Laws Shape Our Culture

Background reading: John Patrick Diggins, “Science and the American Experiment: How Newton’s Laws Shaped the Constitution,” from The Sciences (New York Academy of Science).

The major aim of this project is to give students an opportunity to explore the relationship between science and society. Since the Newtonian Revolution, science and scientists have gained an authority rivaling the priests and their dogma of an earlier period. Since the Enlightenment, societal institutions and cultural works have reflected the world view offered by scientists. Positive and negative responses to the implications of applying this Newtonian world view have dominated the production of art, music, literature, economics, and political philosophy. However, during the last century the “New Physics” has brought new insights into the functioning of our world, and these discoveries have brought new challenges to our thinking. How have our culture and its institutions responded, and how will they respond, to this new revolution? How can the non-scientific community be educated to understand the importance of learning scientific concepts?

1. You will demonstrate that you understand the differences between Newtonian and quantum physics by describing in writing how Newtonian and quantum physics treat each of the following:

  • scientist as neutral observer
  • outcomes as certainty, as probability (causality)
  • the world as one in change vs. the world as having permanence and an absolute set of underpinnings
  • common sense vs. mathematical prediction

(20 points)

2. You will choose a work from one of the following fields (or a field of your choosing) and show how an interpretation of one work in the field could contain underlying assumptions based on either Newtonian or quantum physics. (10 points for brief description of topic and plan; 20 points for initial analysis and notes; critical feedback from group required)

  • Economic theory (Marx, Smith, Keynes, Friedman, etc.)
  • Political theory (Social Darwinism, Leninism, etc.)
  • Psychology (Freud, Jung, Adler, Skinner, Erikson, etc.)
  • Art (Romantics, Realists, Dada, Impressionists, etc.)
  • Music (classical, atonal, etc.)
  • Literature (Cummings, Swift, Existentialists, etc.)
  • Urban planning and architecture

3. You will then take this speculative reasoning one step further and ask: What if the assumptions of the other physics (Newtonian or quantum) were to be applied to that work? How would that work look? In what ways would it have to change? In short, you will show that you know how to apply the underlying assumptions of a world view based upon a field of physics to a work from another field. (10 points, 4-6 minute in-class presentations, feedback from class; 40 points, final project submission incorporating revisions after feedback)

–Physics teacher Arthur Eisenkraft and social studies teacher Dan Berman, Fox Lane High School in Bedford, NY