The Secret Life of Scientists: Claremont Edition

By Nancy Hererra '15, Design Editor Scott Williams

His Science: Chemistry

His secret: Early Modern Historian

On the first day of Professor Scott Williams’ chemistry lab, students are given three cups. One is filled with liquid nitrogen, the other with dry ice and the last with water. The instructions: figure out something about the materials. Students futz with the substances until they reach an epiphany: if they mix the substances, their relative temperatures can be determined.

It is through this type of interrogative, hands-on experiment that Professor Williams demonstrates his pedagogical perspective. “Right now,” said Williams, “we teach science in a linear and top-down way. But that’s not how we do science. The purpose of lab is to use tools and observation to figure out the natural world. We interrogate nature to find out what it’s trying to do.”

Williams’ perspective on science stems from his extensive studies of history. He is especially interested in the scientific revolution and its social and cultural impacts. During this time period, according to Williams, the world was changing from being rigid to becoming the fast-paced and constantly changing world we know today. Europe became the dominant center of new scientific knowledge, which in turn facilitated the continent’s development as an imperial power. Said Williams, “Knowledge, which once revolved around the wisdom of thinkers such as Euclid and Aristotle, was questioned and made fundamentally wrong.”

Williams integrates his knowledge of the scientific revolution into his Freshmen Seminar: The Effecting of All Things Possible. In this seminar, Williams asks profound questions of his students, such as: What do we leave to the individual? How about society? What should be the ideal amount of human rights? By framing the questions in terms of major revolutions that happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, Professor Williams creates a platform where students are more comfortable answering the questions; they can analyze these eternal questions more deeply because they can distance themselves from the era.

Studying history has allowed Williams to change his approach when it comes to research and teaching. He is involved in the Interactive Online Network of Inorganic Chemists (IONiC), an online community dedicated to the improvement of chemistry education. This community has taught Williams that a teacher is meant to be a “trainer of students in skeptical chemistry.”

To Williams, IONiC is only the first step toward what he predicts will be the second scientific revolution. “Science is going to become a global endeavor and will be propelled by the Internet, especially with Web 2.0 and its capacity for social computing,” said Williams. “With all of these countries that are now powerful, such as India and China, we are going to have a much larger network of scientists. I have reason to believe that by working together, we are going to overcome the major problems that we are facing, like climate change.” Ultimately, Williams’ ability to look at the past as a historian and to the future as a scientist has made him optimistic: “I used to be cynical and pessimistic about the future, but through my studies, I’ve realized that this sentiment was unwarranted. Now, I have much more faith in the power of human ingenuity.”