Physicist Recreates Science of Darwin and Newton in Models

Paul Horwitz mentors a high school student who is learning how to use a digital multimeter using a computer simulation. (Image credit: The Concord Consortium)

This ScienceLives article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation.

Once a physicist who specialized in elementary particles, Paul Horwitz currently explores how computers can be used to teach difficult concepts in science and math.

In a project called Evolution Readiness, funded by the National Science Foundation, Horwitz and a team of researchers from The Concord Consortium and Boston College are introducing the basic concepts of evolution to fourth graders. Horwitz and his team created interactive computer-based activities that enable students to perform basic virtual experiments that illustrate Darwin’s model of evolution by natural selection. Horwitz has also developed computer models for teaching such subjects as: Newtonian mechanics, statistics, chaos theory, functions, special relativity, genetics and electronics. His work involves using “hypermodels,” or computer models of a domain programmed to deliver a sequence of challenges and scaffolded with context-sensitive help and assessment functions.

A former Congressional fellow who has also worked on science policy focusing on technological innovation, Horwitz’s scientific journey has taken him down paths where he studied laser-induced isotope separation, performed research on nuclear reactor safety and was a torpedo data analyst. Horwitz has a wife and three kids—a son who is a neuroscientist, a daughter who is an emergency doctor and another daughter who is a business school student.

Name: Paul Horwitz       Age: 72Institution: The Concord ConsortiumField of Study: Physics, Education Research

What inspired you to choose this field of study?

I didn’t. In a way, it chose me. It happened this way: I started my career in science as a theoretical physicist specializing in elementary particles–my Ph.D. thesis was on quarks, the tiniest particles we know of. The work was highly esoteric, using techniques quite different from those employed in other branches of physics and for that reason not well understood by anyone outside the specialty. It was easy (and fun!) to impress other people, but awfully difficult to explain what you did for a living!

What is the best piece of advice you ever received?

The secret to happiness: first figure out what you would do if you were rich and didn’t have to work for a living. Then find a way to get people to pay you to do it!

What was your first scientific experiment as a child?

I don’t remember the first one; it probably had to do with pollywogs and frogs. But my favorite one was the electric baseball game I designed in high school. It wasn’t such a great game, actually – I probably only played it half a dozen times, mostly with my father. But I had a ball building it. I thought of nothing else for months!

What is your favorite thing about being a researcher?

That’s easy: it’s about the only profession I can think of where things keep getting better and better, in the sense that each year we know more than we did the year before. Even if we’re more confused, at least we’re confused about more sophisticated things! So in research you get a real sense that progress is being made, even if you’re not making it – in sharp contrast to working on the really important problems like diplomacy or eradicating hunger, which seem to go on forever.

What is the most important characteristic a researcher must demonstrate in order to be an effective researcher?

The capacity for delayed gratification. By definition, doing research brings with it a high risk of failure. It’s awfully easy to work very hard for an entire lifetime trying to prove something that either isn’t accessible with the methods at hand, or isn’t even true. And until you get to the end of the road you can’t know whether you’re on the track of something or just wasting your time. That kind of uncertainty can be awfully hard to deal with.

What are the societal benefits of your research?

I don’t know that we necessarily need a lot more professional scientists, mathematicians or engineers than we already have, but we certainly could use a general population that is comfortable with science and scientific reasoning. We need people who think of science as a way of finding things out, rather than a lot of information in a forbiddingly long and abstruse book. And ideally, we need people who view science as exciting and fun, and something they might want to do some day.

Who has had the most influence on your thinking as a researcher?

Edward Purcell was teaching physics at Harvard when I was an undergraduate there. I took every course he taught, year after year. He was incredibly intuitive in his approach to physics—he awed everyone with his ability to reduce complex problems down to their essential core, ignoring all the nasty little details that tend to derail the rest of us. I remember we invented the purcell as a unit of physical intuition – the best students in the class, we figured, measured in the millipurcell range –and we’ve all spent a lifetime trying to improve our score.

What about your field or being a researcher do you think would surprise people the most?

I can tell you what surprises me most! When I was in graduate school nothing could have convinced me that there was anything interesting in trying to figure out why someone had trouble learning stuff I already knew. I would just have assumed that the person wasn’t very bright and left it at that. And that point of view was shared by just about everyone I knew – professors as well as students. It was very convenient, after all: it made us all feel smart while at the same time absolving us of actually having to teach anyone anything! So if you had told me back then that I would be working in STEM education, much less that I would find it both intellectually challenging and fun, I would have thought you were crazy!

If you could only rescue one thing from your burning office or lab, what would it be?

My laptop. Almost everything important is on it.

What music do you play most often in your lab or car?

I used to listen to classical music in the car – my favorite composer is Beethoven – but that was when my commute was longer. Now that I live only 3 miles from my work I find that all too often I arrive at my office in the middle of a piece and I don’t want to leave the car until it’s over. So now I mostly listen to National Public Radio. The stories are shorter so I don’t have as long to wait!

Editor's Note: This research was supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the federal agency charged with funding basic research and education across all fields of science and engineering. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the ScienceLives archive.