Elaboration of the Relationship for
Science for All Americans

The science whose study most appropriately supports the appreciation of the scientific approach is the science that gave birth to that approach. This science can be found in the three themes which form the skeleton of the course. Indeed, all are critical to what may be called the scientific view of the world today, a fact which justifies the title of the course. These themes are:

a. The development of the idea of a solar system, the so-called heliocentric (sun-centered) system of the planets, and the inseparable study of motion on earth. Despite appearances, the sun (unlike the moon) does not go around the earth.

b. The long and difficult process of realizing that matter--the stuff of the universe--is fundamentally particulate in nature, and the properties of matter can be in part understood by understanding the properties of these particles. As some ancient philosophers thought, there are indeed "smallest pieces" of the many kinds of matter we see; their explanations of the properties of matter, however, have not passed the tests of time.

c. The manner in which it was recognized and accepted that the earth, and life on earth, are not as unchanging as they seem, but have a history. The metaphor of "the sands of time" refers to more than the contents of an hourglass.

Briefly, these themes are each developed from their origins in pre-scientific experience through the process of concept formation and modification to the point where the modern concepts have emerged. In this course, the names of prominent contributors to these stories have been used as shorthand for their contributions. For (a) this takes us from the astronomical observations of the Babylonians through the speculative cosmology of the Greek natural philosophers, the medieval critics of Aristotle to the revolutionaries of the 16th and 17th centuries: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Descartes, Huygens and Newton. We are concerned both with the developing models of the heavens and the emerging science of mechanics--the study of motion. The latter is significant both as to its content and its new approach. We conclude with the rudimentary ideas of energy and its conservation.

For (b) we find the roots of our study in the speculations of the Greeks, the variety of technological and craft knowledge (e.g. metallurgy, glass making, perfumery, medicine) exploited in the pre-scientific ages, and the alchemical beliefs and practices of the Arabs and other Mediterranean peoples. We then pursue the Galilean approach to "the mathematization of matter," especially as it related to determining the properties of air in the 17th century (Torricelli, von Guericke, Boyle), and follow this with the work of the "pneumatic chemists" (Black, Priestly, Cavendish, Lavoisier) of the 18th century. The fact that both of these approaches can be accounted for by the existence of particles brings us to the atomic theory of Dalton, Avogadro and Cannizzaro, and the periodic table of Mendeleyev. Finally, the combining properties of atoms is also shown to lead to the "explanation" of the properties of larger aggregates (molecules), particularly the macromolecules that form the fundamental structural units of life.

The third theme (c) also begins with a survey of primitive accounts of the diversity of life and geological forms. It is shown that attempts to improve upon early ideas depended largely on ideas of classification (Ray, Linnaeus), and were as severely limited by philosophical/religious ideas as they were by lack of information. The contrasting notions of geological "evolution" (Werner, Hutton) are studied as an example of opposing paradigms, and the interaction of the studies of biology and geology (Buffon, Cuvier) is followed with the work of Lyell and Darwin leading to the latter's ideas of natural selection as a mechanism for evolution. The various interpretations and philosophical uses made of Darwin's theory are discussed, and we conclude with the "new synthesis" (the "explanation" of evolution in terms of the biological processes relating to genetics) and the recent revolution in geology dealing with plate tectonics.

The conclusions of all of these themes share three properties: they all refer to a world outside of and beyond our experiences, they all illustrate the process by which scientific understanding is achieved, and they all run counter to our immediate perceptions and naive interpretations. At the same time, each theme tells us something different about this outside world: it is subject to mathematically precise laws, it has an invisible structure that is not, like a peeled onion, simply "the same only smaller;" and, over periods of time that are unimaginably long, it has changed dramatically in the process of assuming its current state. The Foundations of Science goes from the beginnings of science to an understanding of these conclusions. In this process we show how and why science developed the way it did, and at times how this history has been related to other aspects of the history of human activities and achievements.

Fleshing out the course on these skeletal story lines provides yet another advantage. It immediately gives a contextual relevance to each subtheme we encounter. With little effort, it is clear that the subject of each part of the course has a reason for its inclusion as it develops an area opened up earlier, or answers questions that have been posed. But it is also clear that there are serious limits to how far we can go in this manner. It is unreasonable to expect our novice students to exceed the demands made of beginning majors so that they could go from primitive knowledge to current events. Granted the recent advances are compelling, but understanding them in more than a surface manner demands more time than can be devoted to each in a year. Thus each of the themes mentioned above turns out to have two components: one, which is more rigorous, traces the development of critical ideas; the second is somewhat more descriptive and sketches some more recent developments. We mention atomic structure, genetic engineering and plate tectonics, but we make no claim to present students with more than an inkling of the justifications for the knowledge growing out of these areas of research.

Although we are taking an essentially historical approach by following the development of concepts, this should not lead readers to confuse this with a "history of science" course. Our concern with science as a process--as opposed to simply a collection of facts or conclusions--has led us to realize that this can best be appreciated if the process is studied, and in fact, if it is studied repeatedly. By following each of our themes, or story lines, in detail, little is left for the student to misunderstand because she has been asked to guess what the reasoning patterns were, or what facts demanded conceptual changes or why. We see this process of alteration of ideas as being a key to the understanding of what science is (and what it isn't) and how it came--and comes--into being. At the same time we try to present the content and evidentiary bases of these concepts. We have adopted the story line/historical approach because we believe that when properly used it makes the concepts and process of conceptual change more interesting and readily accessible to novice students.