Science of the Physical Universe

Advances in our scientific understanding of the physical universe that lies outside of living systems have had a profound impact on society. These discoveries and inventions have enabled the storage and harvesting of energy, the development of nuclear power, insights into the origins of our planet and galaxy, and the invention of computers and the Internet. Concepts in the physical sciences also underlie a number of issues that affect societies across the globe, including reliance on fossil fuels, the exploration of space, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, climate change, and privacy in an age of digital communication. By enabling energy and matter to be studied and manipulated in new ways, the science and engineering of the physical universe will continue to play an important role throughout our students’ lives.

General education courses in Science of the Physical Universe teach central facts and concepts in the physical sciences and engineering, and relate them to issues that students will encounter in their daily lives. These courses are not intended to produce budding scientists or engineers, but rather to provide a firm grounding in the nature of the physical world. General education courses in this category should therefore convey material that is broadly applicable to life after college. In order to do so, they should:

  • introduce key concepts, facts, and theories about the physical universe that equip students to understand better our world and the universe;
  • teach the nature of experiments in the physical sciences and engineering, ideally through laboratory experiences;
  • relate scientific concepts, facts, theories, and methods to problems of wide concern; and
  • where relevant and appropriate (as determined by the instructor), discuss one or more of the following: the history, philosophy, contexts, and institutions of the scientific work being taught.

Although much of the connection to real-world problems may be pedagogical, the courses should attempt to provide students with conceptual tools that they can use critically to evaluate scientific claims that they will encounter.

An understanding of Science of the Physcial World is crucial to achieving several goals of general education. Many features of the physical environment, both at home and in other countries, are subjects of extensive research in the physical sciences. These features are not constant: not only do natural forces continually reshape our world, but so do human- initiated forces. An understanding of key facts and theories about, and concepts pertaining to, the physical universe is essential if students are to be prepared to adapt to change, are to function as aware citizens, and are to be able to think critically about many ethical issues that are related to work in the physical sciences, such as the costs and benefits of alternative energy sources.

See my.harvard for a list of courses that satisfy this category.  Using the Advanced Search function, select Science of the Physical Universe from the drop-down menu found under FAS – Additional Attributes.

Learn about other General Education categories.