August 11, 2017

Our Place in the Universe: David Goodstein

By In Interviews

“I think that our subject, classical mechanics, is part of the most important discovery in human history. Before it was made, our view of the universe was the one we received from the ancient Greeks, mainly in the words of Plato and Aristotle. In that view, the crystal spheres of the heavens were immutable, serene, eternal, and perfect. Only down here on this lowly earth was their confusion, decay, disorder, and death. It was a view that was literally designed to put us in our places, but that place, the earth, was at the center of the universe and we could easily imagine ourselves to be the purpose of creation. Then along came Copernicus, and Kepler, and Galileo, and Newton, and by the time they were done we lived on a speck of dust in forsaken galaxy in a lost corner of the universe. No matter how lowly Plato and Aristotle had tried to make us, never in their wildest dreams did they think of doing that to us.

Life today is not very different from what it was 2,000 years ago. In its essentials, the human condition has not changed very much. But in that one thing it’s changed forever: we’ve discovered our place in the universe.”

– David Goodstein, The Mechanical Universe, 1985

David Goodstein is a physicist and science educator from Brooklyn, New York. After getting his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Washington in 1965, he became a research fellow at the California Institute of Technology where he eventually took over the teaching of Richard Feynman’s introductory physics course. Dr. Goodstein was also the Vice-Provost at Cal Tech for thirty years between 1987 and 2007.

The tele course The Mechanical Universe grew out of Goodstein’s lectures and in fifty-two episodes introduces viewers to the fundamentals and foundations of physics at an introductory college level. Whereas Richard Feynman’s course at Cal Tech tried to reach students by relating physics education to contemporary, real world problems, Goodstein placed physics in its historical and human context. The series also features a dry wit that Goodstein became famous for. One such quip was,

“Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906 by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics.”

For his body of work in science education, he received the Oersted Medal in 1999.

Goodstein’s research efforts were focused on condensed matter physics, which focuses on the physical properties of matter as it changes state between liquid, solid, and gas.

His 1975 book States of Matter has been a standard text in the field.

More recently, Dr. Goodstein has authored books on science for broad audiences on topics that have included resource depletion and ethics in science.

Selected Books by David Goodstein:









[Note: This interview was conducted on August 11, 2017.]

OR: It’s a true pleasure to speak with you. Thank you very much for agreeing to have this conversation.

I wanted to start by asking you as a science educator what you think about the current state of science education. Do you feel that students today are less interested in science than in the past? Have controversial issues in the high school curriculum like “intelligent design” hampered the ability to reach young people?

DG: At any given time, there are a certain number of people who are interested in science and then the rest, most people, have no interest whatsoever. At a place like Cal Tech all the students are interested in science and are devoting their life to that interest. But, again few students go to Cal Tech or places like Cal Tech. The rest have never really been interested or excited by science in general.

OR: So, then would you say that you don’t find much difference today than in the past?

DG: Yes, I think that’s pretty much true.

OR: My first introduction to real physics came through The Mechanical Universe, which is a beautiful program.

DG: Thank you very much.

OR: Even with advances in technology and graphics, I don’t think there’s anything else, at least in video form, that explains the fundamentals of physics better. Are you surprised that the series has aged so well?

DG: It was designed to age well. I had in mind a series that would simply explain the concepts and be durable enough that science educators could use it for a long time. We are always learning new things, but the topics we discuss in the series are eternal.

OR: You also wrote a textbook The Mechanical Universe. What made you decide to create the companion video series?

DG: At a certain point this course that Feynman had started was not doing well. It was not doing well because nobody else could teach the way Richard Feynman could. I was asked to revise the course and I ended up starting from scratch and making a new course.

Richard Feynman

I knew that I would not teach forever and that another teacher would also be different from me, with a different style and technique. So, I decided that television might have some significance in preserving the lectures and the course.

I brought the idea to the president of Cal Tech. At the time the president was Marvin Goldberger and I asked him for some money for the project. I had in mind maybe a television camera in the back of the room while I lectured. I did not imagine the elaborate program we ended up with at the very beginning. President Goldberger agreed to give me $50,000 to start the project. I used that to hire someone to assist me and we were off and running.

OR: What was so appealing about the program is the context in which it places scientific discoveries. In my experience the specific concepts are taught, but not in their human and historical context. Someone may teach Maxwell’s equations very well, but they become a very different thing when you understand the human drama and adventure that went into their creation starting with Michael Faraday.

Did you always teach physics with that approach – framing it as this great intellectual endeavor and have you thought about why others don’t follow that approach?

DG: My method of teaching was completely different from Richard Feynman’s, who taught every subject as if it was the newest and greatest discovery that science could have. My teaching was always much more historical and in the context of the history of science.

I couldn’t say for sure why others teach the way that they do, but I think the biggest reason is that the history of science is distinct discipline from science itself. My wife, Judith Goodstein, is a science historian, and she taught me a great deal and that’s always helped me a lot in my teaching.

OR: You mentioned Richard Feynman. I know that you had a great friendship with him and he was a colleague of yours at Cal Tech. You were once quoted as saying, “I’ve spoken to some of these students in recent times and in the gentle glow of dim memory, each has told me that having two years of physics from Feynman himself was the experience of a lifetime.”

What were some of the most valuable things you learned from Richard Feynman and did his teaching have a large influence on you?

DG: Like I said, Feynman’s approach was very different than mine, but there’s no question that I learned a great deal from him. He was a great man and a great physicist. You could see the spirit of inquiry in his eyes and he really knew science.

I’m sorry. I don’t really know what else to say about him.

OR: Did you first meet at Cal Tech?

DG: Yes, we did.

OR: You wrote a book called Out of Gas that studied the depletion of fossil fuels. I suppose for many people that might be a geological question. What caused you to take it up in your research?

DG: Civilization is firmly based on the use of fossil fuels and I was very worried about what would happen to civilization itself when that resource was taken away. So, that was the main reason why I wrote the book.

People did not and do not seem to realize the immense impact it could have on the world economy and the solution is not as simple as alternative energy or even coal or natural gas.

OR: A lot of the discussion around “Hubbert’s Peak” was between camps that said it was an inviolable law and others that said you had to take advances in technology and market forces into account. What’s your current view given the enormous increase in shale and fracking technologies since the book was written?

Hubberts original curve illustrating how peak oli works with production peaks lagging discovery peaks.

DG: I think that the peak itself has certainly been pushed out because in the United States we had almost run out of conventional oil. Now we have fracking and deep water drilling which has increased production once again.

But, oil is still a finite resource, so even if peak production has been shifted into the future, we have to come to terms with the fact that it didn’t just conceptually disappear. It will run out eventually. I don’t know when. I never said that I knew when we would run out of oil, but that eventually we will and it’s going to be a big problem.

OR: So, then, do you have any specific views on when you think “Hubbert’s Peak” may now take place?

DG: No, I really don’t have a good sense of when that might occur. Hopefully later, but it could be sooner.

OR: Being in Pasadena and still associated with Cal Tech must give you some insights others lack. What’s your feeling on the current state of alternative energy? Do you feel we’re making progress?

DG: They are making a certain amount of progress.

Alternative energies like electric cars are becoming more feasible and we can do a lot of things we couldn’t have even when I wrote my book. But, there are limits and disadvantages to each kind of alternative energy. For example, with solar the sun does not always shine and with wind, it’s not always blowing. Those could be part of the solution, but it seems difficult for them to be on their own.

OR: And battery technology certainly plays a big role?

DG: Yes, the storage of electricity is very important. One of the biggest problems we have is that generated electricity almost has to be used because we cannot store large amounts of it. Battery technology could improve significantly and would make a big difference.

OR: You wrote a book after Out of Gas on the ethics of science called On Fact and Fraud. Ethics is extremely important in professional education like business or law. Is it given as much importance in science?

DG: There has been a great deal of attention paid to it in science as well. Most schools require an ethics course and many governments do as well. The problem in science is often that it’s generally assumed that the ethical behavior of scientists is pretty good  and doesn’t need supplementing.

I think we could stand to do somewhat better still in scientific ethics.

OR: Is science more self-correcting than other disciplines? If an experiment is not found to be repeatable or an idea supported, won’t the evidence ultimately win out?

DG: Well, no. The idea that an experiment is repeatable is a very good idea, but it doesn’t always work that way. The fact that it doesn’t get repeated doesn’t mean the original experiment is false. So, I don’t think that experimentation will guarantee you a path of self-correction.

OR: You’ve got a new book coming out on climate change. What are your current thoughts on climate change given the state of politics? Are we doing enough to ensure a good environmental future?

DG: Climate change is a very big deal and we aren’t nearly doing enough to ensure our future. As much as we need to do much more, our present administration is making it seem very likely that we’re not going to, at least in the near future. And that is a big problem.

OR: As a scientist do you have a perspective on any solution? Would you favor a cap and trade approach or something similar?

DG: I favor cap and trade and I really favor anything that can help make progress on this issue. We need to be willing to try a lot of different approaches because of the enormity of the challenge.

OR: Do you have a publication date yet?

DG: It has just come out. I have a co-author, Michael Intriligator on that book and it looks at both the science and economics of the issue.

OR: I want to genuinely thank you for your time and wish you all the best.

DG: Well, thank you very much. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you.

Bridge Lecture Hall at Cal Tech where the Mechanical Universe was filmed and Dr. Goodstein taught for many years.


Note that the California Institute of Technology has now made available the complete series of The Mechanical Universe on YouTube. The first episode in the series is linked below:


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