BI 075 — Scientific Lives

Do scientists live lives like those of other people? Are they specially detached from the pressures of the world around them, or are they just tools of the political establishments of their times? Do the personal aspects of their lives have any bearing on the truth or falsehood of their scientific research? Are they smarter than the general population or do they just have a greater drive to understand the natural world? (Remember that Einstein claimed he did very poorly in school and Darwin had a terrible time with foreign languages and mathematics.) Can prospective scientists (perhaps you are one) learn anything useful about scientific method from scientific biography? In this course we will read long and short biographies and autobiographies of a variety of scientists of different eras. We will use these readings as introductions to the work of the scientists themselves and to scientific method, and we will explore through the medium of biography a number of issues in the philosophy of science such as objectivity and the social context of scientific research.

Meeting Time and Place

Tuesday–Thursday 1:00–4:00 p.m., 331 Bicentennial Hall.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, 353 Bicentennial Hall. Office hours: Tuesday/Thursday 4:00–5:00 p.m. or any other time by appointment of chance. You’re always welcome to stop by to talk about anything relating to our class or to academics generally. E-mail messages are welcome. If you’d like to know a bit about my interests and other activities you’re welcome to visit my webpage (rjohara.net).

Readings and References


Because the January term is very short we will be packing a lot of work into a small amount of time. You must have your reading prepared for class every day, and you should come to class with a page of notes that address all of the discussion questions. You may be called upon to give your own answer to the discussion questions at any time. Although the volume of reading is relatively large, you will find that it is light reading for the most part and won’t be terribly burdensome as long as you keep up with it.

WEEK 1: Introduction. Discussion of Watson’s Double Helix. Each day will begin with students presenting a five-minute “scientist-of-the-day”: an entry copied by hand from American Men and Women of Science in the Armstrong Library. These capsule biographies will give you a feeling for the career patterns that are common among scientists today.

WEEK 2: Discussion of Sayre’s Rosalind Franklin. Begin discussion of Jamison’s Unquiet Mind. On Tuesday and Wednesday you will present a scientist-of-the-day as you did during the first week; on Thursday you will also present a scientist-of-the-day, but this one must be a capsule biography of a Middlebury College scientist based on your own brief interview. (Your instructor doesn’t count.)

WEEK 3: Discussion of Jamison’s Unquiet Mind and accompanying video. Begin discussion of Darwin’s Autobiography. On Wednesday each student will read to the class a two-page paper on one of these three theses, which you must argue for or against:

  1. Watson and Crick, though undoubtedly lucky, were ultimately successful in working out the structure of DNA because they were more intelligent than any of their competitors.

  2. Rosalind Franklin failed to beat Watson and Crick in the race to discover the structure of DNA because she was female.

  3. Scientists should not write about their personal lives because this undermines the public’s confidence in their results.

A final, typed version of this paper will be collected on Thursday and will be graded.

WEEK 4: Discussion of Darwin’s Autobiography and accompanying video. Discussion of Feyerabend’s Killing Time. If time is available we will also discuss Sulloway’ s Born to Rebel. On Wednesday each student will read to the class a two-page paper on one of these three theses, which you must argue for or against:

  1. A scientist’s personal life is irrelevant to his/her work.

  2. Chance is far more important than planning in scientific research.

  3. Historical evidence shows that all scientists clearly follow the same scientific method in their research.

A final, typed version of this paper will be collected on Thursday and will be graded.


Grading will be based on class attendance (attendance at every class is required because the term is so short), the “scientist-of-the-day” presentations, class preparation and participation (very important), and the two short writing assignments.

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