Physics Professor Lynn Westling
Visiting Associate Professor of Physics Lynn Westling specializes in teaching physics to non-physics majors. She recently received her master’s degree in Women’s Studies, and tries to find ways to integrate both fields of study into her classes. Westling sat down with The Argus to discuss her literary tastes, her unconventional views on physics, and her love for the “Gladiator” soundtrack.
Argus: Tell me about some of the books you read.
Professor Lynn Westling: I basically read three different kinds of things: I read for pleasure, just for relaxation and to escape, I read science things that I’m interested in, which are not related to what I teach, and I read things that will help me teach. One book I just finished which goes under the escapism category is “War for the Oaks” by Emma Bull. It’s urban fantasy, and it has got fairies and mythological people in it. The protagonist is a young woman in a band. Usually the books that I read for pleasure have strong women as protagonists, because it’s fun to try to identify with them—especially if they’re younger and in better shape than I am. I’m also reading a book on glass called “Glass: From the First Mirror to Fiber Optics, the Story of the Substance that Changed the World,” by William S. Ellis.
A: How do you like that book?
LW: It’s wonderful. It incorporates the science of glass with the social setting and the future of glass, so it has got all these aspects to it that I enjoy. My secondary interest is feminist studies, because I just finished my master’s degree in Women’s Studies at Southern Connecticut State University last year. I learned all these wonderful new ways of looking at the world, which as a physicist you’re told not to do because you have been indoctrinated into being focused and objective. There are all of these rules and restrictions that apply to physics, but when I looked at Women’s Studies, I realized how much everything is a social construct. I had never even thought about that, since I was just so indoctrinated into the mode of thinking like a physicist. Now whenever I pick up a book, I look for something that’s going to feed into my dual interests of how knowledge is gained and how knowledge is defined. The science itself, and then the setting in which science is done.
A: How do you choose books to read?
LW: The reason I’m into urban fantasy right now is because I read a book by Charles de Lint. I was fascinated, because usually I prefer women authors. But he did have a female protagonist — which is necessary. I was intrigued by the whole idea of there being a veil between our world and the fairy world. So once I like a book I will find similar books. The other book I’m reading, which is related to how I teach, is this four-book series of “How Things Work.” I’m fascinated by how things work, and I like to fill my courses with reality. Too often, I believe that people don’t like physics because they can’t see the relevance. So I’m constantly looking for relevance. I like picking up a book where I can open the book and find out how the teletypewriter works, for instance. I will open the book randomly and get caught into finding out how something works. If I’m trying to relax my brain, I’ll go into the fantasy world. If I’m restless, and I’m trying to find something to divert myself, I’ll probably pick up a science book, because I’ll need to feel challenged. I’m in the process of reading probably a dozen books at a time.
A: How do you bring your background in Women’s Studies into your physics classes?
LW: I bring in a shift of focus, since I don’t believe that physics is the be-all. I believe that physics was established in the context of seventeenth century culture, where the people that created it were upper class white males. So I do not believe that anything that was so isolated among a group of thinkers with their own ideas and biases could be considered unbiased and completely objective. I bring that to my teaching of physics, because I’m not a true believer. I believe there are different ways to think about things, learn things, and express things you’ve learned. A really rigid physics course would require that you learn things in the accepted way. So if you don’t follow the canon, it’s thought that you are not teaching physics correctly. What I’ve done in the course I’m teaching this semester is a comparison of physics and art. When the paradigm shift in physics occurred, the paradigm shift in art occurred. That’s the premise of the book I use in class called “Art and Physics,” by Leonard Shlain. I already teach physics in a way that would horrify most physicists, because I bring in so many non-physics things.
A: Has this unorthodox view led to any conflict within the physics department?
LW: No, the physics department is very supportive. They hired me because of the way I do things. The proof is in the fact that my courses are always full and that my course evaluations are for the most part very positive. I have a very strong personality, so there are bound to be students who dislike me. That’s going to happen, otherwise I would just simply be boring. And I don’t want to be boring. The department is 100 percent behind me, and I feel very comfortable and appreciated.
A: How do you integrate examples of physics in film into your lectures?
LW: When I’m bringing in Hollywood to my lectures, sometimes I collect examples and then wait to use them. Or I’ll think about wanting to show something in physics, and then I’ll try to think of a movie that it happens in. Sometimes my husband, who’s also a physicist, and I will get 10 science fiction movies and watch them and see if there are any good examples of physics. So sometimes it’s more of a fact-finding mission. We’ll watch science fiction movies all weekend and see if we can find some good physics, or some particularly bad physics.
A: What are some movies with really bad physics?
LW: The one that has the worst physics is “Armageddon.” There is not a single part of that movie where they seem to understand physics; it’s just dreadful. The other one with terrible physics is “The Core.” But “Armageddon” has hands down got the worst physics I’ve ever seen—not to mention the worst acting.
A: Do you look at every movie you see through a physics lens?
LW: No, I can enjoy the bad stuff. It’s only when I’m looking for it. Or if I’m sitting with a physicist, it’s fun to poke each other and go, “Ha ha, that can’t work.” But otherwise, I’m not completely tainted—I can change my lenses.
A: Do you have a favorite movie and book?
LW: My favorite book is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” It has the female protagonist with Scout. I love the interaction of Atticus and Scout, the dad-daughter relationship. I have a very special relationship with my dad, so that strikes a chord with me. I have a favorite movie, which has nothing to do with physics, which is surprising to most people. It’s “Gladiator.” Even though there’s a lot of violence in it, the combination of the characters and the music is great. I will listen to that soundtrack every time I sit down to grade. I will grade my exams listening to the soundtrack from “Gladiator.” The characters are so crisp. I can watch that movie over and over again.