UNCG HSS 208W — 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 2:00–3:15 p.m., 111 Foust Building.


Dr. Robert J. O’Hara, 100 Foust Building (rjohara@uncg.edu). Office hours: Tuesday/Thursday 1:00–2:00 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 also 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

Requirements and Grading

Attendance and class participation (10% of final grade); four four-page papers on set topics, each paper revised once (each paper is 22.5% of the final grade, for a total of 90%). Attendance and participation are essential as this course will involve much discussion of the readings. Details on the writing assignments are provided below.


Every Tuesday each student will be required to bring to class a “Scientist-of-the-Week.” This will be a 3 × 5 card with an entry copied out (not xeroxed) from American Men and Women of Science. These short biographies will serve as starting points for class discussion and will allow students to get a general picture of the lives of contemporary American scientists.

Writing Assignments

Students must turn in four papers over the course of the semester. A draft of each paper must be turned in first; this will be commented on and returned for revision. Both the draft and the final version of each paper must be typed and double-spaced. The text of the paper should be four pages long with one-inch margins all around. Late papers will not be accepted without a medical excuse. Each paper counts 22.5% of your final grade, so you should devote a great deal of effort to each one. Your job is to impress me with clear organization, detailed argument, and error-free presentation.

Each paper must be written on one of the specified theses below, and each paper must consist of an argument either for or against the thesis. You may choose to defend the thesis or to attack it; it makes no difference. What does make a difference is the clarity of your argument and the evidence from our reading that you marshal in support of your argument. If you quote material from the readings a simple citation such as (Watson, p. 43) or (Sayre, p. 56) is sufficient. You should not have to do library research to complete these assignments; all you will need are the assigned readings and a good deal of careful thought.

Paper #1: draft due February 1st (Thursday); final due February 8th (Thursday). Choose one of these two theses to either defend or attack:

  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.

Paper #2: draft due February 22nd (Thursday); final due February 29th (Thursday). Choose one of these two theses to either defend or attack:

  1. Religion was an obstacle to the scientific work of Hugh Miller and Louis Agassiz.

  2. Eulogy, as a genre of writing, is much too emotional to be of any use to a professional historian.

Paper #3: draft due March 21st (Thursday); final due March 28th (Thursday). Choose one of these two theses to either defend or attack:

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

  2. Scientists should not write about their personal lives because this undermines public confidence in their results.

Paper #4: draft due April 11th (Thursday); final due April 18th (Thursday). Choose one of these two theses to either defend or attack:

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

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


 Th  Jan 11:     Introduction

 Tu  Jan 16:         "
 Th  Jan 18:         "

 Tu  Jan 23:     Biographical perspectives (read Watson & Sayre)
 Th  Jan 25:         "

 Tu  Jan 30:         "
 Th  Feb  1:         "  (draft of first paper due)

 Tu  Feb  6:         "  (draft returned)
 Th  Feb  8:     Video interlude (final copy of first paper due)

 Tu  Feb 13:     Eulogy as a genre (read short works to be assigned)
 Th  Feb 15:         "

 Tu  Feb 20:         "
 Th  Feb 22:         "  (draft of second paper due)

 Tu  Feb 27:         "  (draft returned)
 Th  Feb 29:     Video interlude (final copy of second paper due)

 (Spring break)

 Tu  Mar 12:     Modern autobiography (read Jamison & Feyerabend)
 Th  Mar 14:         "

 Tu  Mar 19:         "
 Th  Mar 21:         "  (draft of third paper due)

 Tu  Mar 26:         "  (draft returned)
 Th  Mar 28:     Video interlude (final copy of third paper due)

 Tu  Apr  2:     Darwin (read Darwin and short works to be assigned)
 Th  Apr  4:         "

 Tu  Apr  9:         "
 Th  Apr 11:         "  (draft of fourth paper due)

 Tu  Apr 16:         "  (draft returned)
 Th  Apr 18:     Video interlude (final copy of fourth paper due)

 Tu  Apr 23:     Conclusion
 Th  Apr 25:         "

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