This article is part of the Johnnie Chair project “The Johnnie Bookshelves”. We will interview Johnnies around the campus about their experience at St. John’s, the program and the books that they like to read outside and inside the program.
By Brian Liu
From the outside Mr. Beall is somewhat of anomaly at St. John’s. To the outside world his decision to come and teach at St. John’s is contrary to what people expect from a physicist. What is very striking about his story is how often, in many instances of his life, his life united the sciences and the humanities. In today’s academic community there is very much a dichotomy between the sciences and humanities.
Mr. Beall was quick to say that all his degrees are in physics. He went into the service immediately after high school and stayed there for 4 years. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University in Colorado, and later completed his master’s and doctorate at the University of Maryland.
“I was a bit busy.”
The pursuit of this beautiful science did not cease. He worked in various projects in the arena, which included: his service with the Office of Technology Assessment and his role as a science scholar with the US Congress, his various research positions with the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and the Naval Research Laboratory. Among his proudest work was his involvement with wind turbines. He and his colleagues discovered the 40-60 kilowatt scale minimum for their economic use.
From his resume, so to speak, it is easy to see one narrative, yet beneath there was another component to it. A philosophy and literature component.
The discovery regarding wind turbines was not the only one he made in his life time. Back when he was in Colorado he said he also discovered the Cartesian circle. A form of argument used in Decartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy. From a young age he had a fascination for philosophy, but especially literature. Later on he would contribute towards many humanities projects, serving on the board of a poetry magazine Wordworks and spearheading an African American intellectual movement In The Shadow of the Capitol.
So, when he stumbled upon a teaching ad in Physics Today in 1983 for teaching position at St. John’s, he didn’t really have to read the College catalog as was advised.
He was not unfamiliar to the College. Back when he was doing his doctoral work at the University of Maryland, one of his officemates was a Johnnie, Joanne Murray A‘70. During that time, it just so happened that the Watergate scandal was just brewing up in nearby D.C. In the office Joanne would often remark that if those involved were educated at St. John’s, such a thing wouldn’t have happened!
With that memory, Mr. Beall began teaching at St. John’s in 1983.
“They ended up liking me and I loved them…”
His first classes were freshman seminar, junior lab and freshman lab.
“I think it is a false dichotomy.” ‘It’ being the difference between mathematics and science.
He cited Leibniz as the source of his inspiration. He was both the founder of calculus and also a remarkable metaphysicist. In C.P Snow’s work Two Cultures, the author makes a distinction between innumerate and illiterate people. Mr. Beall says that St. John’s is a testament that we can be both literate and numerate. One source of the dichotomy he says is today’s pedagogical style:
“…the classic example for us: the single most manifest observational fact of astronomy is the sun rises somewhere in the east and sets somewhere in the west. The deductions from that are long and detailed and they have to do with Ptolemy, Copernicus, Kepler and Newton among others, right? But especially Euclid because it is the basis of all that. That we are going 800 miles an hour to the east at this latitude right now is something people are told in elementary school …it’s handed down from Mt. Olympus. Its really annoying because it’s an enormous amount for people to think through…people lose that joy from being able to think through things and be able to understand it themselves.“
“It’s politically a bad example, scientifically bankrupt, and that’s not how this works…you have to be able to present the argument.”
You need to know the argument before you present it.
Mr. Beall regularly reads Thucydide’s The History of the Peloponnesian War.
“The old attic Greek truism is that the risk of not being involved in politics is that you could be governed by someone worse than yourself. Thucydides is a gentle reminder to be involved in politics too. “
To him, reading the great books on the program is like wrestling with God.
“Reading these books is like that…you are always going to get something dislocated.”
Like Jacob’s blessed dislocated thighbone, here your paradigms will also be dislocated. You will be beautifully broken. And it’s not always a delightful experience.
“I have been unbelievably annoyed by every book on the program.”
He remarked in our interview that he agreed with Ms. Brann when she remarked that our endeavor here at the College is akin to giving the shades of Hades living blood so that they might speak the truth. Our time and our engagement is the blood that brings these dead, great authors to life.
It’s a frightful endeavor too. In our interview he confessed that Euclid’s Elements was the one course that he was scared to teach. It’s not applied mathematics, but it really is mathematics.
Mr. Beall likes classical music; Rachmaninoff and Bach, especially Bach’s Brandenburg concertos. He also likes the Dire Straits.
I asked him for one last piece of advice, and he concluded the interview with this about being at St. John’s:
“I think we forget how much fun this is. I was talking with an old friend who works in public policy…about the outline for this lecture…and he said ‘You got the best job in the world.’ And why we are were what was it that originally brought us here and to this moment and recollecting that is always a good thing.“
Mr. Beall will giving a lecture this Friday entitled: Leibniz’s Monadology and the Philosophical Foundations of Non-locality in Quantum Mechanics.