Robinson Professor of Physics Makes ‘Scientific Literacy’ Available to All Students

Posted: August 21, 2006 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

James Trefil
“How will you discuss stem cell research or decide what position you support on the issue if you don’t even know what stem cell research means?” asks James Trefil, Robinson Professor of Physics.

At many universities, the most distinguished professors teach only graduate students. But at George Mason, thanks to the vision and generosity of the late Clarence J. Robinson, undergraduates have the opportunity to learn from faculty members who are recruited to George Mason from senior positions at prestigious institutions, including Princeton, Harvard and Yale.

The mission of these educators, the Clarence J. Robinson Professors, is to enrich the academic experiences of undergraduate students while continuing their scholarly pursuits on broad and fundamental intellectual issues.

The first cohort of Robinson Professors arrived after the university started receiving income in 1984 through an historic bequest from Robinson. A leading businessman and civic leader in Northern Virginia, Robinson was prominent among a group of Northern Virginia citizens who sought to establish an institution of higher education in the region.

From 1964 to 1970, he chaired the advisory committee appointed by the governor to oversee the development of George Mason College as a branch campus of the University of Virginia. Later, in preparing his will, Robinson advanced his belief that if his bequest were spent on people rather than bricks and mortar, the effect would be much more profound for the young college.

Currently, there are 12 Robinson Professors. Collectively, the Robinson Professors have received numerous distinguished awards, including Guggenheim fellowships, the Pulitzer Prize and George Foster Peabody Awards. They have published countless academic articles as well as books, plays, films and documentaries.

This is the fifth in a series of profiles of the Robinson Professors. Paul D’Andrea, Shaul Bakhash, Roger Wilkins and Harold Morowitz were previously profiled.

James Trefil

By Rey C. Banks

Robinson Professor James Trefil gets a sparkle in his eyes when discussing scientific literacy, a topic about which he is passionate. The physicist fervently believes that all students, no matter what their major, need to possess a basic understanding of science to make informed everyday decisions.

James Trefil
James Trefil
Photos by Nicolas Tan

“How will you discuss stem cell research or decide what position you support on the issue if you don’t even know what stem cell research means?” he asks.

“Many basic scientific principles such as global warming come into our lives every day. People who are educated about subjects that affect the quality of their lives make more informed decisions.”

Trefil likens scientific literacy to a course in music appreciation. “Let’s face it, I will never compose music or be a concert pianist. But learning how to listen to and appreciate classical music has enriched my life overall.

“I’m not trying to convince anyone to become a scientist,” he continues, “just to build a foundation from which they can make their own moral calculations.”

That is the convincing case Trefil makes for teaching science to the large percentage of college students who don’t go into scientific fields. At George Mason, Trefil and fellow Robinson Professor Robert Hazen co-teach UNIV 301 Great Ideas in Science. The course is described as “a non-technical introduction to the ideas that have shaped the growth of science … with special attention to its importance in mankind’s understanding of the nature of the universe.”

But Trefil is taking his message to students before they ever reach a university campus. He is the chief science consultant for a publisher of middle and high school textbooks, and he lectures all over the country at conventions for K-12 science teachers. Trefil and Hazen both served for several years on the National Academy of Sciences – Science Education Standards content review board. George Mason is the only university that has had two faculty members serving together on the board, Trefil notes.

Trefil is also making an impact where science and law intersect. He teaches lawyers and judges courses on biotechology in the courtroom for the Science in Courts program sponsored by Mason’s Law and Economics Center. The continuing legal education courses for attorneys and judges offer instruction in understanding the basic principles of science as they apply to legal matters.

“Jim Trefil is the gold standard when it comes to lecturers at the George Mason program for judges,” says F.H. Buckley, director of the center. “Since our programs routinely feature Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winners, that’s saying a lot. It is also remarkable that a scientist can make his subject understandable to people who typically were a lot better in philosophy than science.”

Trefil is the author or co-author of more than 30 books, including “Sharks Have No Bones: 1001 Things Everyone Should Know about Science” and “From Atoms to Quarks.” He is an authority on human intelligence and artificial life.

After receiving a BS in physics from the University of Illinois, he received BA and MA degrees from Oxford University on a Marshall scholarship. He finished his studies as a National Science Foundation Fellow at Stanford University, where he received an MS and PhD in theoretical physics. Trefil taught at the University of Illinois and at the University of Virginia before joining George Mason in 1988.

In addition to teaching UNIV 301 this fall, Trefil is teaching PHYS 122 Inside Relativity and PHYS 123 Inside the Quantum World.

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