History of Science Wows Hearts and Minds

Derek Stowe

Since 2002, a course called The History of Science has caught the attention of science and non-science majors alike thanks to the extensive knowledge and practical teaching techniques of instructors Sid Kolpas and Patrick Griffin.

According to the GCC course catalog, History 133 covers more than 2,000 years of science from Plato (428 – 348 BC) to Einstein (1879 – 1955), including Pasteur (1822 – 1895) and the medical, Copernican, Newtonian, and Darwinian revolutions.

“In addition to the discoveries, we wanted to focus on the personal side of the story: the men and women who made major scientific contributions,” said Kolpas, one of the original designers of History 133. From 2002 to 2010 he gave the course’s lectures on the contributions of mathematicians and is now teaching his last semester at GCC.

Griffin, who holds a doctorate in history from USC now teaches the course single-handedly. He had to turn people away when the semester began. Five weeks later, 36 science lovers still gather for their weekly double dose of scientific history.

“Science is not a rigid body of facts,” said Griffin in his first lecture. “It’s a dynamic process of discovery, and it’s as alive as life itself.”

To make the history of science come alive, Griffin produced, wrote and directed 35 broadcast documentaries, of which five were for NOVA, the best-rated and most-watched science series on television.

One of his four Emmy nominations was for “Einstein: The National Centennial Show” (1979). Griffin said his other most memorable documentaries were the ones he made with colleague Francis Gladstone, one of NOVA’s first producers. These included “War from the Air” (1975), “Hitler’s Secret Weapon” (1976) and “Henry Ford’s America” (1977).

“Hitler’s Secret Weapon” was about Wernher von Braun (1912 – 1977). Von Braun helped pave the way for modern day ballistic missiles and space travel when he engineered Hitler’s deadly V-2 rocket.

Material for “Hitler’s Secret Weapon” became part of a course Griffin taught at Cal State Long Beach.

Showing in-class documentaries serves as a practical teaching technique.

“The genius of the world resonates in your mind.” said GCC student and philosophy lover Rachel Melikian.

“This school has some great teachers, and Dr. Griffin is one of the great [ones],” she said. “He makes it fun. You wouldn’t think he is just going through his notes. He uses a lot of audio visual aids such as museum paintings, medieval miniature art, and videos.”

Melikian said she was intrigued by the colorful flier she saw at the beginning of the semester. “I love philosophy and the questions on the flier were philosophical. The first day I liked [the class] so much I stayed.”

Kolpas said, “If you don’t know about the history of science, you can’t expect to be a good scientist.” An awareness of the evolution of science is vital for inventors and all science-related careers.

“It’s such a big realm of subjects,” said business finance major Diana Karagezian, “I guarantee you’ll walk out with more knowledge than you ever thought you could have.”

During a typical lecture, Griffin’s students learn how every scientific innovation is based on previous innovations.

For example, ancient Greek physician and philosopher Galen (129 – 199) assumed that the whole length of an artery pulsated simultaneously on its own as opposed to the heart causing the artery to expand and contract. Likewise, Galen and Chinese physicians thought that there was a unique type of pulse for every organ and every disease.

In 1025, Islamic physician Avicenna (981 – 1037) modified such beliefs when he compiled a 14 volume encyclopedia called the Canon of Medicine. The canon, which analyzed the body according to the four basic elements of nature, was still being used even 100 years ago when barbers still served as doctors.

Sir Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is only by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Newton (1643 – 1727) would not have been able to invent calculus and physics without the work of predecessors including Pierre de Fermat (1601 – 1665), Descartes (1596 – 1650), Galileo (1564 – 1642), and Euclid (325 – 270 BC).

Karagezian, who took art history, said she especially liked learning about Aristotle and the philosophers because of “what they knew and how we still use what they thought of today.”

Aristotle (384 – 322 BC), whose writings represent the first comprehensive system of Western philosophy, explored many topics. Except for his view that the universe revolved around the earth, many of his theories still reign in the fields of math, ethics, logic, government, and zoology.

“Logic underlies all of mathematics,” said Kolpas, who holds a community college credential in math and computer science. Mathematics has been called the “queen and servant of the sciences.” Without math, the sciences would be mere fanciful assumptions.

Additionally, governmental, social, philosophical, geographic and commercial factors greatly influenced the development of science.

Thanks to these factors, “paradigm shifts occurred throughout history and resulted in major leaps forward in scientific understanding,” he said. In other words, as technology improved, societies had to adjust to a new way of life.

To earn his doctorate, Griffin received a grant from the National Defense Education Act whose goal was to generate defense-oriented personnel by helping foreign language, engineering and other scholars improve the “scientific product and thinking of America.”

President Obama recently repeated that message urging America to teach more math and science.

Through History 133, Griffin has given those interested in science a chance to envision making a difference.

Karagezian credits Griffin for inspiring her to take biology and chemistry before transferring to a UC or to Cal State Northridge.

Biology major Moses Dalton said he never took a class quite like this one. Science is his favorite subject, and his dream is to become a biology teacher and teach abroad.

Along with his hope that science will one day discover a cure for cancer, Kolpas expressed his fear that science will inevitably bring danger.

“My big concern for humanity is that our scientific progress is going much faster than our ability to handle the moral and ethical issues that come with that progress,” he said.

In other words, the world may one day fall victim to a nuclear disaster, an artificial intelligence or an army of human clones.

“What’s happened [globally] in science over the last 30 years is absolutely amazing – the computer age, the development of medicine, electro-magnetism, quantum physics..” said Griffin. “Did you know that because the universe is ever-expanding in 12,500 years the North Star will become Vega, and in two million years the night sky will appear void of stars?”

Fortunately, Griffin’s 36 current science students will have a better understanding of how mankind’s final outcome depends on the laws of science and history’s tendency to repeat itself.