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Reading the Great Books of Science

All-Day Program

Saturday, December 5, 2015 - 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Code: 1H0091

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What happened to scientific inquiry? To our desire to better understand our world, our cosmos, ourselves? Too often, we learn about current issues in science through a debate among semi-informed politicians or in a journalist’s brief article.

In this all-day seminar, discover the groundbreaking books, which over the centuries moved scientific development forward. Explore the works of great scientist-writers, from Hippocrates, Plato, and Aristotle, through 20th-century classics in biology, physics, and cosmology. They are a reminder that scientific inquiry is an essential, often deeply personal, sometimes flawed, frequently brilliant way of understanding the world.

9:30 to 10:30 a.m.  Beginnings of Science: From the Greeks through Copernicus 

The firsts: accounts of the universe; theory of evolution; use of mathematics to measure the universe; a secular scientific text; and the rise of a sun-centered universe. Hippocrates, Aristotle, Socrates, Lucretius, Ptolemy, and Copernicus.

10:45 to 12 noon  The Birth of the Scientific Method: From Francis Bacon to Isaac Newton

The emergence of: the modern scientific method; observation and experimentation; instruments and laboratory work arrive on the scientific scene; the emergence of still-viable rules of reasoning. Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, and Isaac Newton.

12 noon to 1 p.m.  Lunch

A box lunch is provided.

1 to 2 p.m. Reading the Earth: From the First Geologist to the Great Asteroid Catastrophe

The birth of the first modern science, geology; the concept of “deep time”; uniformitarianism vs. catastrophism; the origins of Continental drift. The Comte de Buffon, James Hutton, Charles Lyell, Alfred Wegener, and Walter Alvarez.

2:15 to 3:15 p.m.  Reading Life: From the First Biologist to Dawkins and Gould

The evolution of the science of life; the beginnings of biology; theories of natural selection and inheritance; cell-level discoveries; biology and the destiny of humankind. Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, James Watson, Richard Dawkins, and E. O. Wilson.

3:30 to 4:30 p.m.  Reading the Cosmos: From Einstein to the Butterfly Effect

The limitations of Newtonian physics; quantum theory; the triumph of the Big Bang; Chaos theory. Albert Einstein, Erwin Schroedinger, Edwin Hubble, Steven Weinberg, and James Gleick.

Lecturer Susan Wise Bauer is an independent writer and historian. Her latest book is The Story of Western Science: From the Writings of Aristotle to the Big Bang Theory (W.W. Norton).

Please Note: Participants can tour the Smithsonian Institution’s Dibner Library highlighting some of the science authors in their collections. Sign-up information is available at the program.


S. Dillon Ripley Center
1100 Jefferson Dr SW
Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)