Learning science again for the first time

It’s hard to believe, but I’m at the halfway point of the semester already. As part of my training, I’ve been taking Shimer College’s Natural Sciences 1, The Laws and Models of Chemistry. It seems unlikely that I’ll be teaching it any time soon, but I wanted to see how Shimer’s Great Books approach works with a hard science class — and so far, I think it has much to recommend it.

Basically, it seems that the trade-off compared to a traditional science course is that you get a lot less information about the current state of science and a lot less practice in the technical ins-and-outs of skills like balancing chemical equations, operating lab equipment, etc. — but you get a lot better understanding of the problems scientists (both pre-modern and modern) have grappled with in trying to get some kind of handle of “what stuff is made of” and a much more vivid grasp of the basic principles that are discussed.

For instance, I probably read in a textbook at some point that, all things being equal, the pressure of a fluid depends on height (e.g., the “inches of mercury” in a barometer) — but really grappling through the text in which Pascal presents his experiments demontrasting it for the first time, and seeing it confirmed in lab, is a different thing altogether. It was exciting to feel like I’d actually figured it out for myself rather than memorized it.

The pedagogical obstacle of doing historical texts is that students are always going to want to compare their achievements with what “we now know.” I keep questioning who this “we” is — I did well in high school chemistry, but I’ve been taken by surprise more than once already — and also find that this kind of teleological reading (seemingly inevitable in “history of science” narratives as popularly understood) is a serious obstacle to the kind of sympathetic reading the Shimer method depends on, because it’s inherently a matter of judging the argument from without rather than grappling with it from within.

To that extent, I’ve felt that I was actually in an advantageous position where I’ve actually been ignorant — for instance, I didn’t realize that Bacon’s explanation of heat as motion in The New Organon is now considered basically “right” and so was able to view it as what he probably intended it to be, namely, his first best guess and a rough-and-ready demonstration of his inductive method. And I could then see how Lavoisier’s explanation of heat as a type of fluid even more “subtle” than air could seem much more convincing. The instructor promises that we’re going to work on fluid-centric explanations (including an essay on phlogiston that is notorious among the students) for the next two weeks before finally breaking into something closer to the “real” explanation.

One could say this is a waste of time, puzzling over “wrong” accounts. And if you just want to transmit a body of technical know-how — which is, I should hasten to say, a worthy goal — it is. But in terms of getting a feel for the sheer difficulty of the scientific enterprise, the fits and starts by which it proceeds, the provisional nature of explanations even after they’ve endured for a century, I think this kind of approach is incredibly valuable. It may constrain the number of scientific “facts” one has been exposed to (and briefly memorized), but it seems like it has the potential to produce a better, more productively skeptical view of what science is and does.

At the very least, I have difficulty believing that a student who has completed the Shimer natural science curriculum will thrill to the amazing discoveries surrounding which areas of the brain light up at various times, for instance.

2 thoughts on “Learning science again for the first time

  1. Hi Adam,
    This sounds way stinking cool. Is there a way non-Shimer students could get the “Natural Sciences 1 – The Laws and Models of Chemistry” syllabus and try this at home? Does Shimer sell a lab book to accompany the Pascal, Bacon, and Lavoisier readings?

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