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Hot subjects—Physics 206: ‘Seeking Truth: Living with Doubt’

September 30, 2007 By Danielle Russell

Physics professor Marshall Onellion has a new job title this semester: official tackling dummy for his freshmen students.

It’s part of his scheme to provoke controversial discussion and to get his students really thinking. Oddly enough, he’s instigating this debate in a physics class.

Not your typical physics course, “Seeking Truth: Living with Doubt,” is a new freshman seminar that combines science, the arts and religion in the search for truth and understanding of the world. And Onellion welcomes this challenging debate of science vs. religion.

“I fully expect to step on toes,” Onellion says confidently. “I don’t care about that; I care about the students thinking for themselves.”

Onellion breaks down this quest for truth into chapters like altruism and ethics in science, providing scientific information and religious theories on each subject. Abandoning the idea of absolute right or wrong, Onellion believes that science and religion complement each other, and that they’re both valid in the search for truth.

Onellion says that his first inspiration for designing such a course was the commentary after Sept. 11. “I spent a lot of time listening to people arguing ‘science is right, religion is wrong’ or vice versa. Most of it was rubbish. You’re suppose to pick sides, but I’ve never thought like that.”

In three years of preparation for the course, Onellion studied the Qu’ran and wrote the course’s textbook with colleague Steve Fortney. In class, Onellion requires his students to argue against him as practice for real-world situations with both religious zealots and people who reject religious ethics in scientific reason.

“How do you deal with ‘true believers’ and not let them run all over you?” he asks. “Practice helps – practicing adult argumentation and critical thinking to have the courage to stand up when you’re faced with ideologues.”

But how does Onellion force a timid freshman to argue against him? By creating a weekly, social discussion group at a rotating coffeehouse location for his students to talk about the subject outside of a strict classroom environment. This class is one of many First-Year Interest Groups, or “FIGs,” being offered this fall, where such outside-of-class interaction is promoted.

“Students come into class as complete strangers, and the sooner they become more comfortable with each other, the better the discussion will be,” he says. “I want them to have fun, really enjoy themselves, and hit me…intellectually speaking.”