Steven Weinberg’s History Of Science Syllabus

A few years ago, on reading–perhaps in the New York Review of BooksSteven Weinberg mention his teaching an undergraduate history of science class at the University of Texas, I wrote to Weinberg:

Professor Weinberg,

[…] I believe you teach a class on the history of science at UT-Austin. I would be very interested in perusing your reading list for this class. Would it be possible for you to send me an electronic copy?

Weinberg wrote the following brief email:

My reading list consists of a set of collections of original sources, such as Heath’s Greek Astronomy, and Matthews’ The Scientific Background to Modern Philosophy, and Plato’s Timaeus. I include some handouts, like xeroxed copies of pages from Ptolemy‘s Almagest, etc. I add Kuhn‘s The Copernican Revolution. [links added]

Because Weinberg did not send me an electronic copy of his syllabus, and because I thought he would have if he had had one, I did not persist in asking him for it. And I did not ask for any more detail about the unspecified portions of his syllabus. Weinberg seemed like a pretty busy guy, and I didn’t think he’d be interested in entertaining curricular inquiries from a perfect stranger. (Yes, I know, I was being a little star-struck by a Nobel laureate.)

It is hard to evaluate this syllabus in this incomplete state. Still, there is certainly philosophy in it, as well as some interesting original sources. (Matthews’ collection, for instance, makes available some brief excerpts from the writings of Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes, Newton etc.) Some of Weinberg’s selections–because of their archaic language–are likely to be challenging for the modern undergraduate; the readings are definitely non-trivial and not light. It is, as might be expected, biased towards physics; there is little biology to be seen.  Of primary interest to me is that there is almost no ‘modern’ history of science in it: that is, no work by contemporary academic historians of science. Rather, Weinberg relies on ‘classics’ like the Heath collection, Kuhn, and primary works from the periods of interest (Almagest, the Matthews, Timaeus etc) I wonder if this disregard is because Weinberg distrusts modern academic treatments of the history of science, suspecting them of smuggling in illicit philosophical speculation into their ‘critical histories.’ Weinberg’s own skeptical attitude to modern philosophy of science might inform such a selection.

Unsurprisingly, almost all the readings above would function well in many philosophy of science classes. The Heath alone might be considered a historical supplement in a straight philosophy class, but it too, could feature in a more comprehensive ‘History and Philosophy of Science’ class–like the kind I had suggested in an earlier post on the philosophical education of scientists. The inclusion of the Timaeus is quite intriguing. It remains a rarely taught Platonic dialogue; in part, because of its style, which makes it not a particularly easy read but also because of its subject–cosmology.

I’m not going to take the liberty of suggesting additions to this syllabus largely because I don’t want to speculate about what might be on those unnamed ‘some handouts’, but it does seem to me that some supplementation with philosophy of science could turn this into a useful history and philosophy of science class.

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