Honors 200D-Spring 2000


"A man's mind stretched by a new idea can never go back to its original dimensions." Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes

Instructor: Dr. Dave Pruett, Department of Mathematics & Statistics, 568-6227, dpruett@math.jmu.edu

Office Hours: Burruss 018; TBD and by appointment. No appointment is necessary during scheduled hours. Outside those hours, the favor of an appointment is requested.

Time: Tuesday-Thursday 11:00-12:15 Location: Burruss 140A

Level: advanced undergraduate, honors, writing intensive.

Prerequisites: Calculus I and at least one physical-science course are strongly recommended.


                Black Elk Speaks by John Neihardt
                Relativity: The Special and General Theory by Albert Einstein
                Chaos: Making a New Science by James Gleick
                What is Life with Mind and Matter by Erwin Schroedinger

Related Resources:

               The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra
               Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry
               The Immense Journey by Loren Eisley
               The Phenomenon of Man and The Heart of Matter by Teilhard de Chardin
               The Quantum Universe and Einstein's Mirror by Hey and Walters
               A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking
               News of the Universe: Poems of Two-Fold Consciousness edited by Robert Bly

Books on Reserve:

Class participation (10% discussion; 10% leadership of discussion)
Daily journal
Two one-hour tests
4-5 page book report (selected from auxiliary list)
Final exam

Honor Policy: JMU students are presumed to have the highest standards of integrity. To reinforce these standards, the JMU Honor code will be strictly enforced.

Attendance Policy: Faithful attendance is absolutely essential for individual success and the success of the course.


One could view mythology as the anchor of the human soul to its universe.

For example, among the Lakota peoples of North America, commonly known as the "Sioux," there is a password, mitakuye oyasin, which is loosely translated "all are my relatives." A Lakota man will refer to his peers as "brother," "sister," or "cousin," and as a sign of respect, he will address his elders as "grandmother" or "grandfather." To the Lakota, relatedness extends beyond the immediate family to the community, beyond the community to the plants and creatures, and beyond all living things to the realm of the inanimate. In Lakota mythology, the eagle is truly a brother; the earth, our mother; and the sky, our father. This kinship with all creation weaves many threads of the "wakan" (holy) into the fabric of life, threads which bind a Lakota securely to his or her universe.

The great psychotherapist Carl Jung once observed that he had never counseled a client whose distress was not at some level associated with a loss of myth. Joseph Campbell observed that this is a time for which a new myth of meaning is needed. A myth of meaning relevant for the new millennium should seek to integrate the rational and the intuitive and should draw on the wisdom and earth-centeredness of ancient or aboriginal cultures as well as the technological sophistication of modern Western society.

At times antagonistic to one another, science and religion, like two sides of a coin, seek answers to the same fundamental questions: Who are we? Where did we come from? Why are we here? What is our place in the universe? In an evolving universe, myths of meaning must also evolve if they are to sustain a people subject to the upward thrust of evolution.

In the West, we tend to think in terms of scientific "truth" and religious "myth." But science itself is hardly static, and its "truth" has been shattered and rewritten numerous times throughout history. Copernicus and Galileo shattered the myth of an earth-centered universe. Newton's second law shattered the myth of absolute space. Einstein's theory of relativity shattered the myth of absolute time. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle shattered the myth of the objective observer. Hubble shattered the myth of the static universe. And quantum mechanics and chaos theory have shattered the myth of predictability. Each scientific quake reverberates with profound psychological dislocations as well as with opportunities for the human species. Galileo was muzzled by the Church, which held a geocentric universe among its dogma. Einstein, adamant that "God does not play dice," was never able to embrace the uncertainty principle of quantum mechanics.

The course will begin with an intuitive look at the universe through Native-American mythology. Against this backdrop, we will then view the universe scientifically by brief studies of three scientific revolutions of the 20th Century--relativity, quantum mechanics, and chaos theory--each of which rings with profound philosophical implications for the human psyche. Much of the energy of the course will be focused on the search for commonalities between these seemingly disparate world views. The common threads will provide the warp and woof by which each participant is to weave a tapestry--a personal myth of meaning.


The course will be both rigorous and writing intensive and will be conducted partly in lecture format and partly as a seminar. Lectures will be devoted to background material, to mathematical derivations, and to illustrations of physical concepts (for example, the Lorentz transformation of special relativity and the bifurcation diagram associated with the logistic equation of chaos theory, from which Feigenbaum obtained his constant of universality). Occasional exercises will be assigned to reinforce concepts. Exercises will lead students deeper into the material than the "layman" level at which the texts are written, but they will be designed to be appropriate to the level of mathematical and scientific maturity of the students (i.e., students of average scientific and mathematical abilities should not be scared away by the technical content of the course). Guest speakers or films will occasionally be tapped for change of pace and expertise. Readings will be discussed in-depth in a seminar format. Teams of students will be asked to assume leadership roles in guiding discussions. Students will be required to keep journals in which they will respond to the reading assignments and discussions after each class period. One book review will be assigned, the book to be selected from the list of additional references (or approved alternatives). Exams will combine essay questions with a few mathematical exercises designed to test a grasp of fundamental concepts. Part of the final exam will consist of a take-home essay designed to help students assimilate and unify the many elements of the course.

Course Philosophy:

The course will be integrative in nature; that is, we will be seeking out the common threads of seemingly diverse streams of thought. Students should bring to the course open minds, open hearts, willingness to ask probing questions, eagerness to dig deeply for answers, and the courage to live with ambiguity when answers are not readily forthcoming. The instructor will be making this journey along with his students. The course will be considered successful if each participant is able to shape or to reshape his/her own personal myth of meaning from at least some of the raw ingredients discussed in the class.