If a group of concerned parents gets its way, high school physics students may soon be required to learn about alternative explanations of gravity. The parents say that a one-sided focus on Newton's so-called universal law of gravitation is unfair to students who don't believe in gravity. If they prevail, physics teachers may be forced to read a statement acknowledging that our understanding of gravity is just a theory.
Is Einstein's 'theory of relativism' next?
By Cole Walters, education correspondent
DOVER, PA—It is a staple of high-school physics classes: the story of Isaac Newton's encounter with a certain apple. As scientific wisdom would have it, Sir Isaac was sitting beneath a tree one afternoon when the offending apple dropped down upon his head, leading him to coin an explanation of one of the universe's greatest mysteries: why do things fall out of the sky?
Called the universal theory of gravity, Newton's so-called law is taught to physics students everyday. But a growing movement of parents wants to change that. They say that Isaac Newton's theory of acceleration and velocity is just that—a theory—and that forcing students to accept a Newtonian view of the natural world is unfair to those who don't believe in gravity.
An accelerating movement
This small Pennsylvania town south of Harrisburg is at the center of the movement to force high school physics teachers to introduce alternative explanations of the force of gravitation. But parents here reject the claim that they're trying to ban teachers from mentioning gravity, or the increasingly controversial Sir Isaac Newton. Rather, they say, their goal is to supplement the existing physics curriculum.
"It's just not fair to the young men and women who attend physics classes in Dover that they learn about one theory over and over," says curriculum improvement advocate Lorraine Dittie. "What we'd like to see is a more a balanced presentation."
Just a theory
If parents and advocates for change like Dittie get their way, physics teachers may be required to read a statement to their classes as early as next fall, acknowledging that Newton's explanation of gravity is a theory, not a law as it has often been described in the past. "If it's a law, that means that there are penalties for breaking it," explains Dittie. "Newton obviously came up with one theory of how gravity works, but there are others as well."
One such theory holds that Isaac Newton was chosen by God, who signaled his interest in the British physicist and mathematician by dropping an apple on his head. While students would still be exposed to Newton's ideas, they would largely bypass his influential work on physics, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, focusing instead upon his deeply-held religious beliefs and his later work in which he attempted to date the events depicted in the bible.
Physicists gravitate to secularism
But not everybody is happy about the new plan. Dover Senior High School physics teacher and golf coach Lou DeGregorio says that he's already got enough to teach, and that adding new explanations of gravity may force him to cut other subject areas from his curriculum, including force and equilibrium, static electricity or simple harmonic motion.
Mr. DeGregorio also questions why the parents have chosen to single out Newton's law of gravity for their efforts, noting that the 17th century mathematical formulation has largely been replaced by Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. "I don't want to say that these people are idiots but they obviously don't know a whole hell of a lot about physics."
Next up: the theory of relativism
For her part, Mrs. Dittie says that she's all too familiar with Einstein's theory—and that her curriculum improvement group is already contemplating launching a charge against the German physicist.
"At least he acknowledged that all he'd come up with was a theory," says Dittie. "But the last thing we need to expose our kids to is a theory of relativism. They're already being told that there's no right or wrong. If you want to learn about Einstein, fine. I just don't want my tax dollars going to pay for it."
Do you think it should be against the law for high-school physics students to learn about gravity? Talk back to firstname.lastname@example.org.