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First Paper

Assignment: Analyze a primary source from the syllabus.

Due Date: Start of Lecture 9.

Length: 2000 words

Grading: This paper will form 10% of the final course grade. Late papers will be penalized one full grade (e.g. A→B→C) for each day.


Choose a single primary source from the syllabus (Linnaeus, Smith, Condorcet, Young, Fresnel, Goethe, Joule, Helmholtz, Liebig, Schwann, Maxwell, Mendeleev) and write a paper that analyzes and contextualizes the source. You must address, in whatever order makes the most sense, the following six topics. The questions listed below for each topic are suggestive; some will not apply to all sources, and others might be relevant. Assessment is especially important: the essays should not be purely descriptive. Additional reading (web-based or otherwise) may be helpful, but is not required.

  • Who: who is the author, what is his (sadly, they are all men) background, training, position, social status, etc.? What else did he publish, if relevant?
  • What: what is the content of the source, e.g. is it the report of an experiment or scientific discovery, is it a description of a hypothetical thought experiment, or is it an argument / speculation / proposal of a new theory? What kind of work was done to provide the evidence? Were instruments used? Does the description enable the testing / replication of the findings?
  • Where: where / how was the source presented -- as an article, as part of a book, as a speech? Who is the desired audience: scientists, general intellectuals, politicians, the wider public?
  • When: what was going on in culture and science when the work appeared? What is the role of the work in the author's broader career?
  • Why: what was the author's intent in publishing? Was he arguing for or against something? Did he seek an impact on science, or broader culture?
  • Assessment: do you think the author succeeds in his purposes. Your answer can be empirical -- based on some knowledge of the author's impact -- or subjective, based on your own judgment (if defensible). What does the source reveal about the author, science at the time, or on-going tensions within science and culture?

For example, suppose you chose the Declaration of Independence. Who: a committee led by Thomas Jefferson, a slave-owning, aristocrat. What: a declaration of rights, a long list of grievances, and the claim that the grievances justified rebellion. Where: published as a broadside that was distributed widely; audience included local elites, the general public, and English intellectual and political elites. When: 1776, after several years of simmering discontent and one year of open warfare. Why: a justification of rebellion and war in pursuit of self-rule. Assessment, for instance: inspired the revolutionary war in the U.S., as well as revolutions in France, Latin America, and countless other areas; it has become an icon of the Enlightenment; it uses unsubstantiated assertions of natural law to defend political and economic self-interest; it triggered on-going debates about the rights of individuals vs. governments; as a call for self-determination, it has fueled on-going conflict between ethnic minorities and governments.

Other Details

  • Please put your name on the title page, but not on any of the pages of the body of the paper (to facilitate grading the papers blind).
  • Citations: cite your primary source with (Author, page #). If you use any other sources, provide appropriate citations. Use whatever style (APA, CMS, etc.) you want, just be thorough, accurate, and consistent.

Second Paper

Assignment: Use Geison's article as a model to evaluate the career of a scientist.

Due Date: Start of Lecture 18.

Length: 2000 words

Grading: This paper will form 20% of the final course grade. Late papers will be penalized one full grade (e.g. A→B→C) for each day.


In the readings for Lecture 15, Gerald Geison discusses the career of Louis Pasteur. He argues that Pasteur's skill as an entrepreneur and self-promoter was as important to his success as his scientific skill. Using this essay as a model, evaluate the work and / or career of another scientist. Your paper must do three things:

  • You must make a specific argument about the role of entrepreneurial / commercial / self-promotion interests in the person's career (e.g. relevant or not, if so why; force of good or evil, why, etc.). This argument must make use of Geison's discussion of Pasteur, but you should feel free to agree or disagree with Geison (e.g. even though person X, like Pasteur, had entrepreneurial interests, this did not have a major influence on her work or its impact).
  • Illustrate your arguments with at least one specific example (more examples may be useful or appropriate). The example could be a close reading of something we have read by the scientist, or it could be a description of some other event / project in the person's life.
  • Situate the examples in a broader overview of the trajectory of the person's life and career.

Many questions might be relevant. How did the scientist become successful or famous? Did the scientist actively promote his or her work? How did the scientist obtain funding? Did the scientist work to develop practical applications of the research? Did the scientist collaborate with other researchers, or with industry? Did the scientist try to establish a legacy by training and encouraging students and protégés? Did the person seek mastery / excellence in a single area, or did they have their hands involved in many different projects? Did the scientist focus on research and allow the results to speak for themselves? What impact did entrepreneurial interests have on the science (choice of research questions, or approaches to the questions, etc.)?

Ideally you should choose someone whose writing we have read, ideally from recent weeks of the course. The most obvious candidates for comparison with Pasteur would be: Justis von Liebig, James Clerk Maxwell, Dimitri Mendeleev, Charles Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, Peter Kropotkin, Robert Koch, Sigmund Freud, W. H. R. Rivers, or Charles Davenport. You cannot write about the same person you chose for the first paper. If you want to write about someone else, please check with the Instructor.

There are two basic ways to approach the paper. One approach would be to take the scientist's primary source and read it carefully for answers to the above questions. This would work for some of the sources, not others. Another approach would be to use other sources to learn about the scientist's career. These approaches, of course, can be combined.

We are not asking for a major research paper. For some of the people, skimming a single biography would be more than adequate (good biographies of all of these people are easily available). Good sources can also be found through the Proquest General Reference database. Much information (of variable quality) is available on the web. If you have trouble finding information, contact the Instructor.

Other Details

  • Please put your name on the title page, but not on any of the pages of the body of the paper (to facilitate grading the papers blind).
  • Citations: Provide appropriate citations for all sources. Use whatever style (APA, CMS, etc.) you want, just be thorough, accurate, and consistent. If you have questions, ask early and often.

Third Paper

Assignment: Find and contextualize a primary source of your own choice.

Due Date: Start of Lecture 25.

Length: 2000 words

Grading: This paper will form 20% of the final course grade. Late papers will be penalized one full grade (e.g. A→B→C) for each day.


First, find a primary source that is interesting, important, or both. This source can be an original article (e.g. an article published in Science), a book (but if you do this, pick something short, e.g. John Hersey, Hiroshima ), an archival source (like the article by Hinners on the syllabus next week), or possibly (with permission in advance) something less traditional -- an advertisement, a film, a photograph, etc. The source must be about science (broadly defined), but it does not have to be scientific (e.g. it could be an article from the New York Time about Hiroshima). The time frame should be roughly 1900 to 1980. If you want a source outside this range, let us know. Second, let us know by Lecture 23 what source you have chosen, so that we can make sure it is appropriate and realistic. Email the Instructor, depending on which section you go to. Third, write a paper that explains why the source is interesting, important, etc. As with the first paper, consider a range of possible questions:

  • Who was the author, why was the paper written, how does it relate to other work by this author? If relevant, figure out the audience of the source.
  • What was the paper's scientific context, why was the research done, why were the questions relevant, do the results or arguments confirm or challenge the conventional wisdom?
  • What was the paper's social / cultural / political context, why was the topic relevant / controversial?
  • What impact / implications did the paper have, was it influential, was it ignored, did it open up a new area of research, did it resolve a long-standing problem, did it introduce an important or controversial technology, did the author predict / expect the impact?

Depending on your choice of primary source, you may or may not need to do additional background reading. Good books exist on most of the topics we have discussed. If you have any trouble finding helpful sources, please let us know and we can point you in the right direction.

How to Find a Primary Source?

There are many ways to locate a source:

  • You may already know about interesting articles from the history of science from your science courses (e.g. Watson and Crick's 1953 proposal of the structure of DNA). If so, track down the source and run with it.
  • You may have a time period in mind (e.g. Cold War science, the 1920s, etc.), or a science in mind (e.g. geology, genetics). If so, then pick a journal and browse. This can be done either by going to the stacks, pulling old volumes off shelves and seeing what catches your eye, or doing this electronically. For instance, go to Science, randomly choose an issue (e.g. July 10, 1942), and find an interesting essay titled "Science and Social Action," about the wartime responsibilities of scientists. You can browse the major generalist sources (Science, Nature), or whatever journal is most relevant for a specific area of science (e.g. New England Journal of Medicine, Current Anthropology, Geophysical Letters ).
  • You could look for leads at the MIT Archives or the MIT Museum.
  • You could track down sources referenced in secondary sources that we have read.
  • You can ask the Instructror.

For instance, in just a few minutes of brainstorming and web-searching, we were able to produce a varied list of sources that would lead to potentially interesting papers:

Interesting papers on life and genetics in the 1950s:

Watson, J. D., and F. H. C. Crick. "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids." Nature 171 (1953): 737-738.

Wright, Sewall. "Genetics and the Hierarchy of Biological Sciences". Science 130, no. 3381 (Oct. 16, 1959): 959-965.

Dyson, Freeman. "Science and Freedom." Science 124, no. 3219 (Sep. 7, 1956): 432-433.

Lederberg, Freeman. "A View of Genetics." Science 131, no. 3396 (Jan. 29, 1960): 269-276.

Muller, H. J. "Life." Science 121, no. 3132 (Jan. 7, 1955): 1-9.

Lederberg, H. J. "Exobiology: Approaches to Life beyond the Earth." Science 132, no. 3424 (Aug. 12, 1960): 393-400.

Beadle, G. W. "Uniqueness of Man." Science 125, no. 3236 (Jan. 4, 1957): 9-11.

Letters from people who wanted to be volunteers in Cold War experiments on the health effects of radiation:

Welsome, Eileen. The Plutonium Files: America's Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War. New York: The Dial Press, 1999, 270-271.

A debate about what kind of research was permissible on soldiers:

AEC Advisory Committee on Biology and Medicine. 10 November 1950.

National Security Archives: a range of documents, likely a treasure trove if you're lucky with searches. For instance, searching for "plutonium" turns up a bunch of things, some interesting, some not:

The National Secutiry Archive

Tobacco Archives: the lawsuits against the tobacco companies have led to millions of documents being put on line. Again, if you're lucky with searches, you might find interesting sources:

Tobacco Archives

Legacy Tobacco Documents Library

An attempt to develop civilian applications of Manhattan Project technology:

"Availability of Radioactive Isotopes: Announcement from Headquarters, Manhattan Project, Washington DC," Science 103, 2685 (14 June 1946): 698.

A classic, if flawed, attempt to embarrass psychiatry:

Rosenham, D. L. "On Being Sane in Insane Places." Science 179 (19 January 1973): 250-258. [Letters to the Editor].

"Psychiatric Diagnosis." Science 180 (27 April 1973): 356-369.

Classic papers by people we've discussed so far:

Yerkes, Robert M. "Measuring the Mental Strength of the Army." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 4, no. 10 (Oct. 15, 1918): pp. 295-297.

Rongten, W. C. "On a New Kind of Rays." Science 3, no. 59 (Feb. 14, 1896): 227-231.

Planck, Max. "The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science." Science 110 (1949): 319-327.

Goddard, Henry H. "Who Is a Moron?" Scientific Monthly 24 (1927): 41-46.

Schroginder, Erwin. "What is Life." 1944.

Any other area of interest:

For instance, if you are interested in geology, you could check out the early papers on place tectonics, e.g.:

Hess, H. H. "History of Ocean Basins." In Petrologic Studies: A Volume in Honor of A. F. Buddington. Edited by A. E. J. Engel, H. L. James, and B. F. Leonard. Geological Society of America, Colorado, 1962, pp. 599-620.

If you're interested in computers and culture, and were willing to take a risk (or have relevant background), you could use video sources, such as the original Apple commercial or the movie of 2001: A Space Odyssey. If you choose something off the beaten path, check with us first.