What happened next: Novices teaching monks physics

This article is part of a special Cosmos series where our newsroom journalists follow up science from the archive, to find out: What happened next?

In 2006 His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Emory University in Atlanta, US, formed a partnership – the Emory Tibet Science Initiative – to introduce modern science to Buddhist monasteries.

Ilya Mandel from the Monash School of Physics and Astronomy, and Leslie Atkins Elliott, teaching Curriculum Instruction and Foundational Studies at Boise State University, Idaho in the US,  teamed up as part of the project.

The Emory-Tibet Science Initiative was designed to promote the convergence of science and spirituality.

For two weeks in May and June in 2019 Mandel and Atkins Elliott taught 25 monks in the 600 year old Gaden monastery in south west India. It was a broad-survey course covering topics ranging from Newton’s laws to energy to astronomy.

The two professors wrote a feature article in issue #86 of Cosmos Magazine, March to May 2020.

Mandel wrote in 2019: “Buddhist monks were convinced that objects naturally come to rest when no forces are acting upon them (and I am not convinced we convinced all of them otherwise).”

Ilya and leslie
Buddha:”In the company of good friends, the mind finds serenity.” Leslie and Ilya (Image: L Atkins Elliott)

Atkins Elliott added: ”In our initial dive into forms of energy we had some typical ideas like ‘light energy’ and ‘heat energy’ but the monks added ‘compassion energy.’ And we told them that, to a physicist, there is no unique form of energy relating to compassion. I will admit to feeling like a caricature of an overly rational scientist as we told them this. 

In summary in the #86 article, Mandel said: “I learned a lot about teaching physics from Leslie. My natural reaction would have been to opt for old-fashioned school lecturing, especially when faced with the relative lack of preparation in the audience. And yet spending an hour asking them for what they thought of as possible forms of energy was clearly a useful strategy in teaching the domains of physics…less algebra more of a sense of what empirical science is about.”

Now almost four years later Cosmos asks: “What happened next?”

“Unfortunately COVID happened next!” Atkins Elliott says.

“I was going to go to Nepal to work with Tibetan Buddhist nuns but that was, of course, cancelled in 2020. The project that had brought me to India ended that year as well. 

“The thing that stood out to me there, and matters to me as a teacher, is that the monks, it seemed (I am not even a ‘novice’ when it comes to knowledge about Tibetan Buddhism, so this may be totally wrong) use debate not as a way of ‘proving’ an idea or demonstrating mastery of a concept, but as a genuine effort to ensure that their own personal ideas hold water. It’s playful and spirited and also very serious. 

“So often (in US universities) it feels like students are trying to memorize or be able to reproduce what the teacher thinks (or what ‘PHYSICS’ thinks), without any kind of attention to whether or not it is what they, the students, think.

“So I structure more debates in my class now. Two recent debates I had were ones where I felt sure I could easily argue for either position: “When you touch a hot pan, are you feeling the pan’s heat or your own heat?

“And then, in this same class, as we were looking into colour and colour receptors, a student said “we never really see yellow.” And this became a debate. “Do we ever really see yellow?”

“If it helps, let me share the blog I kept while there.” Physics 1.

Mandel says: “I fondly remember my time in the monastery, but I found it more challenging to directly incorporate insights from there into my own teaching.  But I kept on talking to Leslie and learning from her over the years (this new friendship was perhaps the greatest direct impact on me — I was very lucky to have such an awesome co-instructor!).  So I hope that I’ll get there eventually.”

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