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?