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Reading Science at a Great Books College
Welcome to the SB&F Editor's Blog. I am Maria Sosa, Editor-in-Chief of SB&F. Through this blog I hope to interact with the SB&F community and post news and information related to science books, videos, authors, opportunities and other topics of interest to our readers. I hope you find the blog useful and entertaining. Please, join the conversation by posting a comment on our Facebook page. I'd love to hear from you!


Shimer College, my alma mater, is considered one of the Great Books colleges, of which there are only a few. At Shimer, there is a core curriculum that every student must follow.  While this curriculum has been modified somewhat throughout the years, it remains substantially the same as when I attended some 40 years ago.

The core curriculum includes a four course sequence in the natural sciences that examines natural science in the context of its historical development. There are labs, but the focus is more on the study of original sources, such as the writings of scientists and philosophers who made significant contributions to the history of science. Below are the reading lists from the four courses that comprise the Natural Sciences sequence. Through this process Shimer students come to understand not only how it is that we know what we know, but also why we know it.

My years at Shimer certainly left me with an appetite for books of all kinds, and my job as an editor of a review journal keeps me connected to all of the best (and worst) of the new books. But I retain a particular passion for the classics and thought it might be interesting to give SB&F readers a glimpse into what science looks like at a Great Books College by sharing the current reading lists from the Natural Sciences sequence at Shimer College.

Natural Sciences 1 - The Laws and Models of Chemistry

Aristotle, Physics
Philip Wheelwright, The Presocratics
Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe
Antoine Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry
Francis Bacon, New Organon
Stanislao Cannizzaro, Sketch of a Course in Chemical Philosophy
Selections from: Robert Boyle, Amedeo Avogadro, Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac, James Prescott Joule, Blaise Pascal, Pierre Bulong, Georg Stahl,Joseph Priestly, Bejamin Thompson, John Dalton.

Natural Sciences 2 - Evolution, Genetics and Animal Behavior

Aristotle, On the Soul, Parts of Animals
Charles Darwin, Origin of Species
Gregor Mendel, "Experiments in Plant Hybridization"
Konrad Lorenz, On Aggression
Jane Goodall, Through a Window
Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy
Stephen Jay Gould, The Panda's Thumb

Natural Sciences 3 - Light, Motion and Scientific Explanation

Isaac Newton, Opticks, Philosophy of Nature
Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld, Evolution of Physics
Albert Einstein, Relativity
Selections from: Galileo, Hans Christian Ørsted, Christiaan Huygens, Thomas Young, Augustin-Jean Fresnel, C.F. du Fay, Benjamin Franklin, James Clerk Maxwell

Natural Sciences 4 - Quantum Physics and Molecular Biology

Erwin Schrödinger, What is Life?
Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy
George Gamow, Thirty Years That Shook Physics
Richard Feynmann, QED
Freeman Dyson, Origins of Life
Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, Origins of Sex: Three Billion Years of Genetic Recombination

These reading lists are not very different from what they were when I attended Shimer. They form the basis of a bond that I still share with many Shimer alumni from my era, many of whom went on to become scientists, engineers, and mathematicians. Surprisingly this shared reading and reflection has also created a bond with the young Shimer students of today, some of whom are featured in this video recently produced by the college. I mean, how many other people do I know that can get my phlogiston references?

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Posted 18 Jul 2012 4:46 PM by Maria Sosa