What's a good idea for a thesis paper combining English and Physics?
November 18, 2009 6:25 PM   Subscribe

I go to a small Liberal Arts school in Pennsylvania, and part of the graduation requirements involve writing a substantial Senior Composition, basically a baby thesis (Original research requirements, rigorous, etc.) I'm double-majoring in Physics and English, and I'd love to be able to combine both of these subjects into one comprehensive paper, especially because if i can't, I have to write two separate ones.

I've tossed a few ideas around (Analysis of Quantum Mechanics in Orson Scott Card's Xenocide/Children of the Mind; A series of several parables designed to illustrate some facet of quantum mechanics to the average person, etc.), but all of them are mostly English-based and only superficially deal with Physics. (The Physics professors tend to be the harder ones to convince, most English professors are happy to do something different). Any ideas?
posted by Archibald Edmund Binns to Education (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Sokal hoax.
posted by dfriedman at 6:26 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's been done and done to death, but the Sokal Hoax could provide much grist for an undergrad essay covering these two topics in a very meaty way.
posted by smoke at 6:37 PM on November 18, 2009

posted by smoke at 6:38 PM on November 18, 2009

Are you sure the college will accept a single combined thesis for both majors? At my school you would have been required to do two, no matter what.
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:47 PM on November 18, 2009

Time Travel/Teleportation/some other physics issue and it's portrayal in popular literature. Focus on how it works or works in theory and look at how literature dumbs it down for the masses or just totally changes things to fit in with what the story needs.
posted by theichibun at 6:49 PM on November 18, 2009

I had the same comment as you're a kitty! Make sure this is OK with the school before you continue. I'd suggest talking to both of your advisors about this, but it sounds like a great idea if it's allowed!
posted by k8lin at 6:49 PM on November 18, 2009

Can't be done. You're DOUBLE majoring, not doing an interdisciplinary program. Double major=two theses.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 6:51 PM on November 18, 2009

Rhetorical analysis of some specialized topic within physics as presented in popular science magazines/popular media/etc. In technical communication, at least, it seems that there is interest in the rhetorical strategies used to communicate specialized knowledge to a less-specialized audience. Who simplifies the academic work? For what purpose? What intended/unintended consequences come from oversimplification of complex ideas for public consumption? What sorts of things do scientists and technical writers need to know to work together effectively? How much scientific training should tech writers have?

Another option would be an exploration of co-authorship in scientific writing. The sciences generally value multi-authored works, whether or not those "authors" actually wrote words for the article or whether their contributions were from their research and not their writing of the article itself. English values single-author works more (ask any of your English professors about how co-authored publications are valued in relation to single-authored pieces in getting tenure if your school has publication requirements for its faculty). Is there anything the two fields can learn from one another about "authorship"?

If you can do something related to education, you may want to consider how physics students are taught to write about their work and what sorts of contributions composition studies might make to instruction about science writing. Related: Writing Across the Curriculum issues may allow you to look at what sorts of training physics professors need to have in writing so they can teach their students how to write in that scientific field. In general, professors agree that their students need to be able to write better in their majors, but the professors often don't feel they have sufficient training in writing instruction to teach their students effective writing strategies. Plus there's the issue of how much time you might spend teaching writing in a class v. teaching the subject matter. Should a writing intensive science course be co-taught with an English prof? Or should the science prof teach the writing part since they know the conventions of writing within that discipline.

Your English profs might be down with something in Visual Rhetoric, too, or in Technology, so explore those as possible areas. How do/can/should physicists create visual models of their work (possibly related to the first idea above with popular magazines)?

Pretty much any science topic can turn into an English topic if there's some sort of rhetorical analysis there, so I'd start with some question you'd like to explore in Physics and do just enough rhetoric to turn it into a dual physics/English project.

Just some messy ideas, but perhaps they will be helpful!
posted by BlooPen at 6:55 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

To clarify, It's not quite a thesis, so people have combined subjects before. A few years back someone combined a Biology and English comp quite nicely i hear. It's uncommon but accepted
posted by Archibald Edmund Binns at 7:17 PM on November 18, 2009

maybe go the other way and look at how (poorly) physics papers are composed etc? or whatever bloopen just said...
posted by Large Marge at 7:46 PM on November 18, 2009

Well, you could always do an exegeses on Physics for Poets!

In all seriousness though, I think you summed it up in the last sentence of your question - anything you do to try and combine them will likely result in something heavy on the English end and not so much the physics. I mean, even if digging out all the quantum mechanics stuff from Ender's Game proved to be enlightening, I highly doubt it would be very meaty in the way of a good physics thesis. These two fields are about as disparate as they get.

The only thing I can think of that might work is if you - and I don't know what branch of physics you groove with - but perhaps you could do something having to with spectral analysis certain sound patterns common in the English language and try to find some correlations, perhaps, between oft used words, or very potent words, or dirty words, or harsh words (the fuCK phenomenon, if you will) and their actual sound patterns. Like, and I'm just throwing shit around, if you read, say, Forster or Woolf, there is a certain - soft(?), warm, er whatever quality to their writing that is different than, say, Joyce, which seems to me much more punctuated, brazen - this sounds really bullshitty, and it is, and your job would be to make it less bullshitty by actually examining the physical properties of the sound through spectral analysis. You know, read the works out loud and break down the wave patterns. See what you find.
posted by Lutoslawski at 8:32 PM on November 18, 2009

I was in a similar situation during undergrad, finishing up a few liberal arts majors as well as one in physics. Although I ended up doing a purely liberal arts thesis, I did toss around the idea of doing one on pseudoscience -- e.g., anti-vaxxers, the moon-landing hoax, doom in 2012, chiropractic, homeopathy, young-earth creationists, Large Hadron Collider doomsayers, what have you -- and the rhetoric involved in selling unscientific ideas.
posted by SpringAquifer at 9:00 PM on November 18, 2009

ethnomethodologist: Can't be done. You're DOUBLE majoring, not doing an interdisciplinary program. Double major=two theses.

Oh, and it seems like you're pretty sure you know what you're doing already. What ethnomethodologist said isn't always true, anyway. At least not the programs I was doing.

Just don't forget to triple check the actual requirements in the course catalog yourself and run it by advisers in both departments to prevent any unwanted, last-minute surprises.
posted by SpringAquifer at 9:09 PM on November 18, 2009

Your belief that a joint thesis (relating two such disparate subjects) might be easier than two separate theses is false. Consider the Sokal hoax above: the editors found the "physics" paper completely incomprehensible and reached incorrect conclusions about its quality. To pull this off correctly, you're going to need to write clear, simple distillations of both the physics-heavy and English-heavy sections so that both grading professors can understand and appreciate the entire essay. Assuming that a physics professor has probably had enough English training to decently follow the literary analysis or whatever that you write, it will be the English professor who will inevitably waste precious grading time and energy trying to understand the "rigorous" physics of your paper. I know you cited an example of a Biology/English thesis doing well, but I'm absolutely certain that biology is substantially more accessible to a layperson than physics.

Check on the length requirements for joint theses. If a joint thesis is supposed to be the length of a single thesis, I would stay far away. Thesis page requirements may seem scary now, but the pages will fly by once you're a quasi-expert in the material. Most subjects also require a lot of procedural filler to make arguments rigorous. You'll need all the pages you can get.
posted by acidic at 9:43 PM on November 18, 2009

Science communication is a huge subject. Could you look at how effectively work in physics is communicated? You could pick a particular area you've been working on for your degree and develop perspectives on how to communicate it to say:

a) A lay audience (e.g. in a pop sci novel, or a film)
b) High schoolers
c) Peers?
posted by freya_lamb at 5:26 AM on November 19, 2009

What are you planning to do after graduation? If you want to go into physics proper, then you won't be helped by an Enders-game-analysis type thesis. You'll really want to have had the experience doing original research on an Actual Physics Problem.

If you want to go into some science-related field but not be a researcher, then some of the suggestions about science communication / analysis of writing in journal articles etc. could be very interesting. I'm a physicist by training, and I find that understanding the components of effective communication is hugely important in my work.

Let me summarize: there will be value to you as a science person in some sort of combined thesis which focuses on communication. However, if you intend to become a research scientist, you'll get much more value out of doing research in a real lab.

If you intend to go into an English-related field, I've got no clue. :-)
posted by wyzewoman at 6:27 AM on November 19, 2009

A friend of mine sent me this question because she knew I'd love it. I have to say I'm baffled by some of the answers that you're getting here. Are people wrongly thinking that you're in graduate school? In any school I've ever been involved with, undergraduate theses/final papers are specifically not supposed to be tied into particular majors. Historically, undergrad theses were invented as an attempt to make college more interdisciplinary. At my undergrad school, students were strongly encouraged to have at least one professor from outside their major in their thesis committees. I think some people are confused.

There are some really good ideas lurking in BlooPen's answer.

This wasn't my thesis, but when I was in college I did a poetry project that satisfied requirements for both a creative writing class and a physics class. I wrote a chapbook of poems that talked about/played with special relativity. It was a lot of work on both sides, and I learned a lot from it; through a long twisting passage, it led to a lot of other projects in my life; it also made me a finalist for a pretty prestigious writing award. So if you're interested in doing a creative project, I think that there are a lot of interesting opportunities.

There's also the idea theichibun mentioned above of talking about physics as presented in literature. There are some neat possibilities there. Here's one that just came out based on Borges' Library of Babel. It'd be an interesting idea to follow the physical implications of a piece of fiction and see where the logic takes you. I wonder if anyone's tried an exploration of the physics of House of Leaves yet.

If that's not up your alley, how about looking the writing of one or more physicists whose work you're interested in? Sometimes college classes have an annoying way of overlooking the fact that these guys are, among other things, writers. I think a literary/critical study of Fritz Zwicky or Kip Thorne could be fascinating. (Things like this are definitely out there, but of course I'd have to go to the library to find them.)

Or conversely, if you're really mainly interested in writing a physics paper, you'll still be exercising your skills as a writer by writing it well. This is another thing that's sadly not talked about enough in undergrad. Good writing is hard, and some academics are way better writers than others. Most people (without literature degrees) really don't ever even think about developing their voices as writers until graduate school or much later. Get a literature professor on your committee. Tell them that you're as interested in the paper being well-written as you are in one of their literature classes. No, you don't need to baby them. English professors know about Wikipedia too.

Here's a general piece of advice that I wish someone had given me in college: when professors in any department don't express excitement in your interdisciplinary ideas, don't drag them through it. Those are the same professors who'll always have an excuse not to write recommendation letters for you. They're the same ones who'll never come to your readings. Be thankful for what you've learned from them and keep moving. The same goes for your classmates.
posted by roll truck roll at 10:59 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

In any school I've ever been involved with, undergraduate theses/final papers are specifically not supposed to be tied into particular majors.

In any school that I've been involved with, or even heard of honors these from, the opposite is true.
posted by advil at 9:25 PM on December 12, 2009

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