Lives in Science: Biography and Creativity

HSHM 327/HIST 230
Yale University
Fall Semester, 2005
Tuesday, Thursday, 1:00-2:15
Rosenfeld Lecture Hall, GR109

Instructor: Lloyd Ackert
History of Science, History of Medicine

Whitney Humanities Center, Rm. 324
53 Wall Street, New Haven

Biography offers an excellent way to study the history of scientific thought in its historical context. We will survey the history of science through the lives of some of its most influential practitioners: e.g. Einstein, Lavoisier, Pavlov, and McClintock. Drawing on a combination of biographical materials—monographs, films, and websites--and “primary” scientific publications, we will explore the development of scientific ideas in their social, cultural, and political context. This course will address the novelty of scientific creativity in a number of sciences: physics, genetics, chemistry, and evolution from the 17th to 20th century.

At the heart of this course are the contributions each scientist made to their respective scientific fields. Since these scientists defined themselves by the research they conducted and the ideas they introduced, we will study their work. The ultimate aim for the course will be to understand these developments as part of their lives—e.g. their upbringing, social standing, political commitments, education, and perhaps their "dark sides." Biographies are written for a broad range of purposes and come in a wide variety of styles. Course participants will read or view psychological, hagiographic, scientific, and feminist treatments of major personalities in the history of science. They will engage this literature and film as a historical exercise in their study of the role of personality in intellectual creativity.

This course will meet twice per week. I will lecture on Tuesday and if needed for the first part of Thursday, devoting the remaining time for discussion of the assigned readings and films.

Required Books: 1) Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995); 2) Nathaniel Comfort, The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001); 3) Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffman, Oxygen: A Play in Two Acts, (Weinheim, Wiley-VCH, 2001. Available at Labyrinth Books, 290 York St, New Haven, CT.; Phone 203-787-2848

Research Project: Students will write a 2500 word biographical essay (or other creative project, such as a website or play) on a scientist of their choice. Drawing on a variety of sources—biographies, personal papers at Yale’s collections, and scientific publications—students will investigate the interrelationship between a scientist’s work, culture, and personality.

Grading: Class Participation—10%; Midterm Examination—25%, Research project—25%, In Class Presentation—15%, Final Exam—25%.
Course Schedule

Week One (Sept 1, Thursday) Course Introduction and Overview:
“Lives in Science” is a biographical approach to the history of science. Biography offers rich perspective through which to investigate the history of science in the complexity of its cultural, social, political, and intellectual aspects. Discuss the use of film in this course.

Part One: The Rise of Modern Science

Week Two (Sept. 6, 8) Isaac Newton (1642-1727)
1. Robert Westfall, “Newton and the Fudge Factor,” Science, Vol. 179, No. 4075, 23 February 1973, pp. 751-758. Find through ORBIS on JSTOR.
2. Frank Manuel, A Portrait of Isaac Newton (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1968), chapters 4-6, pp. 68-132.
3. View film on Cdigix: Sir Isaac Newton: The Gravity of Genius

Week Three (Sept. 13, 15) Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1793)
1. Antoine Laurent Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., 1952), preface, pp. 1-7.
2. Jean-Pierre Poirier, Lavoisier (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996), trans. from the French by Rebecca Balinski, chapter 5 “The Oxygen Dispute,” pp. 72-83.
3. Carl Djerassi and Roald Hoffman, Oxygen: A Play in Two Acts, (Weinheim, Wiley-VCH, 2001).

Part Two: Natural History and Evolution

Week Four (Sept. 20, 22) Jean Baptiste Lamarck (1744-1829)
1. Jean Baptiste Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy: An Exposition with Regard to the Natural History of Animals (London: Macmillan and Co. Ltd., 1914), trans. from the French by Hugh Elliot, pp. 35-41, 106-125,183-190, 355-361.
2. Richard W. Burkhardt, The Sprit of System: Lamarck and Evolutionary Biology (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1977), chapter 7 “The Frustrations and Consolations of the Naturalist-Philosopher,” pp. 186-218.

Week Five (Sept. 27, 29) Charles Darwin (1809-1882)
1. Charles Darwin, On the Origin of the Species: A Facsimile of the First Edition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964), chapter 3 “Struggle for Existence and chapter 4 “Natural Selection,” pp. 60-130.
2. Janet Browne, Charles Darwin: Voyaging (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), chapter 15 “Paradise Lost” and chapter 16 “A Theory by which to Work,” pp. 343-399.
3. Visit PBS’s Darwin website at
Part Three: Science Moves into the Laboratory

Week Six (Oct. 4, 6) Louis Pasteur (1822-1895)
1. Gerald L. Geison, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 177-256.
2. View film on Cdigix: The Story of Louis Pasteur (Warner Bros. Pictures, Inc., 1936).

Week Seven (Oct. 11, 13) Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936)
1. Daniel P. Todes, Pavlov’s Physiology Factory: Experiment, Interpretation, Laboratory Enterprise (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), chapter 7 “From the Machine to the Ghost Within,” pp. 190-288. Online Book on Yale Internet Resource: (

Week Eight (Oct. 18) Midterm Examination.

(Oct. 20) Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945)
1.Vladimir Vernadsky, “Problems of Biogeochemistry, II: The Fundamental Matter-Energy Difference between the Living and the Inert Natural Bodies of the Biosphere,” Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 35, June 1944, pp. 487-508.
2. Kendall E. Bailes, Science and Russian Culture in an Age of Revolutions: V. I. Vernadsky and his Scientific School, 1863-1945 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1990), chapter 6, “The Legacy of Vernadsky’s Scientific and Philosophical Thought,” pp. 37-79 and 179-198.

Part Four: A Broader Perspective

Week Nine (Oct. 25) Vladimir Vernadsky (1863-1945) II


(Oct. 27) Albert Einstein (1879-1955) I
1. Gerald Holton, Einstein, History, and other Passions: The Rebellion against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co., 1995), chapter 9, “What Precisely, is Thinking? . . . Einstein’s Answer,” pp. 194-207.
2. Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Bonanza Books, 1954), “Science and Religion,” pp. 41-49; “What is the Theory of Relativity,” pp. 227-232.
3. View film on Cdigix: Einstein Revealed.

Week Ten (Nov. 1) Albert Einstein (1879-1955) II


*** On NOVEMBER 3RD there will be no lecture or discussion.
Part Five: “Recent Science”

Week Eleven (Nov. 8, 10) Barbara McClintock (1902-1992)
1. Barbara McClintock, “The Significance of Responses of the Genome to Challenge,” Science, Vol. 226, pp. 792-801.
2. Nathaniel Comfort, The Tangled Field: Barbara McClintock’s Search for the Patterns of Genetic Control (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), Chapter 9, Renaissance,” pp. 226-257.

Week Twelve (Nov. 15) Rene Dubos (1901-1982)
1. Rene Dubos, Man Adapting (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), pp. xvii-62 and 88-109.
2. View film on Cdigix: Survival of Spaceship Earth (1972).

Discussion after lecture.

(Nov. 17) Class Presentations I

Week Thirteen (Nov. 19-28) FALL RECESS

Week Fifteen (Nov. 29) Class Presentations II

(Dec. 1) Final Exam; Essays Due