Summer 2018: Fire and Light in the History of Science


Summer 2018

Final Syllabus: Course Outline- Fire and Light

Course Overview:

This course covers the history of theories of fire and light from a perspective that allows students to see history in a different way – rather than presenting the solid bones left over from thousands of years of erosion by so many different interpreters, an integrated `HPS’ perspective allows us to see the same history told in many different ways, to go back in time and reveal the life of the being whose bones are only left in our contemporary view of science. It aims to show several different perspectives on the nature of fire and light in the history of science, but unlike a normal history course, we will not feign a story in which each of these views was cleanly displaced for a newer, better one; but rather show how these different ways of viewing the same physical phenomena have existed, manifest in different forms, from antiquity to contemporary physics. The students will approach the practice of science from four major perspectives: materialism, dynamism, vitalism, and structuralism. A materialist view focuses on the fundamentality of particles, or the stuff that makes things up, while a dynamic view focuses on how motion happens. Vitalists focus on the fundamental qualities of life, and structuralists explain phenomena by making geometrical models. We will read small selections from scientists, historians, and philosophers from early antiquity to the present who come at the natural world from one of these viewpoints. Then, we will attempt to use their perspective to perform experiments, make models, or explain observations.

It is this type of work that begins to unveil to us the biases of our textbook histories, and contributes to the transformation of the ideas our students will teach in the future. In our study of fire and light we will encounter many of the central topics of the philosophy of science as well, asking questions such as, “What counts as a good explanation?”, “What is a law of nature?”, “What about science is objective?”, and “Should principles or evidence come first in making a theory?”.  In the final project, students will interpret for themselves the changing contexts and assumptions which our historical study will provide. Imagine yourself, entrenched in a world in which light is a particle, pushing away the ether, trying to absorb the idea that it travels instead like waves in the ocean. Imagine that you take light and heat to be the essential qualities of the element of fire, and yet you find a glowing animal which does not seem to emit heat. How do you deal with the anomalies nature presents you with? In what sense is a theory a correct description of the world? These are some questions I hope students will ask themselves as we put ourselves in the shoes of the pioneer interpreters of natural phenomena.

DAY ONE: What is History of Science?

There is more to science than results. Like the dry bones left over from the lives of the great dinosaurs, looking at what remains after the test of time doesn’t give us the full picture of what science really is. What about the thoughts, failures, night science, the real life of it!) Science is a part of culture, and in many ways, is the result of our own creation in a time, as a certain people, with a certain history and certain goals. What can looking at the whole picture of science show us? We can use history and philosophy of science in ethics, policy, history, and even guiding the practices of sciences themselves.


The following project addresses several important aspects in the philosophy of science. First of all, the concept of scientific representation. The information gathered by scientists about the physical world is always presented in one of many possible ways. This can change based on many things from the intent of the scientist, the theory he or she is embedded in, the sociopolitical context of the time, and many other factors. Because of this, different issues are interpreted and represented in different ways in different paradigms. Second, it addresses the concept of theory change. During the presentation of the project, the student will investigate how the paradigm or worldview of each theory influenced the way the student represented the problem or discovery.

Choose one problem or discovery presented to the scientist by nature and represent it in the worldview of two of the paradigms we studied, first by performing an experiment, writing up observations, or creating a model or artistic piece, and then making a critique of their own work from a different viewpoint.

General Worldviews: Materialism, Dynamism, Vitalism, Structuralism

Specific theories we studied: 
Ancient Elementism
Substance Ontology
Wave Theory
Euclidean Geometry
Newtonian Physics
General Relativity
Perspectival Pluralism

Some tentative ideas for your problems/discoveries:

Why do two candle flames repel as they approach?
What happens when a fire is lit, burns upward, and reduces its fuel to ash?
Are people shorter in daytime or night-time?
Can an animal be luminous and not hot? Can a mineral?
What is a battery and how does it work?
How is is possible to see things that are far away?
Is it possible to make something live that is not alive?