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Masterpieces of Scientific Writing - Fall 2017

Each of these weekly papers should be between 250 and 500 words. You must hand each paper in to me, in printed form, no later than the beginning of class on the designated date. Late papers are not accepted. Moreover, you must e-mail to me ( an electronic copy of the paper.

Weekly Papers

  • 28 August - Write about a either (1) a book that has been influential in your life or (2) a scientific result or theory that you find interesting. In the paper, tell me something about the book/result/theory, why you find it interesting, and how it has influenced your thinking.
  • 8 September - Write about one of the folowing: (1) How does Darwin define (or, perhaps, not define) species? Discuss his argument for his position. (2) What is Darwin's argument in Chapter I? That is, what conclusion is he aiming for and what is his argument for that conclusion? (3) On page 51, Darwin says, “I look at individual differences, though of small interest to the systematist, as of high importance for us, as being the first step towards such slight varieties as are barely thought worth recording in works on natural history.” Why does he say this? What point is he getting at?
  • 15 September - Write about one of the following: (1) In the first two chapters, Darwin stressed the variability of organisms and that that variability is inherited by offspring. In Chapter III, he discusses the struggle for existence. Discuss how Darwin puts these together to explain natural selection in Chapter IV. (2) Explain the differences between selection as it relates to domestic animals and natural selection. (3) Discuss Darwin's metaphor of the Tree of Life and its relationship with evolution and the diagram on pages 514 and 515. (4) Why do some species become extinct? Is this a necessary consequence of Darwin's theory of natural selection?
  • 22 September - Write about one of the following: (1) Several times in Chapter V, Darwin contrasts an explanation from natural selection with an explanation assuming independent creation of species. Discuss some of these examples and explain how they further Darwin's argument. (2) On page 136, Darwin uses a metaphor of mariners shipwrecked near a coast. What is he trying to explain with this metaphor? (3) In Chapter VI, Darwin lists four difficulties for his theory. Describe one of the first two of these difficulties and how Darwin replies to it. (4) On page 194, Darwin refers to the maxim “Natura non facit saltum.” What does this mean, and why is it so important to Darwin's argument? How does this relate to the section “On the lapse of Time” in Chapter IX?
  • 29 September - Write about one of the following: (1) In numerous places in the text (for examples, on pages 372 and 406), Darwin comments that certain observations are inexplicable on the theory of creation, but are explainable with natural selection. For one or more of these examples, explain Darwin's argument. Do you think his argument works? (2) Describe Darwin's explanation for the process that led to the similarity between the plants on the tops of mountains and those in the arctic. What is the importance that there is a “relationship, without identity” (page 372) between theses species? (3) Beginning on page 397, Darwin talks about the flora and fauna of the Galapagos Archipelago. How does this support his theory of natural selection?
  • 20 October - Write about one of the following: (1) Salviati and Simplicio do not agree on the differences (or similarities) between the earth and celestial objects (such as the moon, sun, and stars). How do they each view these differences? What are some of their arguments? (2) Salviati does not like Aristotle's explanation (as told by Simplicio) for space being three dimensional. What doesn't Salviati like about Aristotle's explanation? What is his own explanation? (3) What is Aristotle's argument (as told by Simplicio) that the center of the earth is the center of the universe? How do Sagredo and Salviati counter this argument?
  • 27 October - Write about one of the following: (1) Salaviati and Simplicio agree on some of the differences and similarities between the earth and the moon. What do they agree on? What do they disagree on? Explain some of their reasoning. (2) Salviati argues that humans can know some things as well as God does. What types of knowledge is Salviati referring to? Does he think God and humans hold this knowledge in the same way? (3) On page 116, Salviati says that “the wisest of the Greeks . . . recognized that he knew nothing.” Who was this Greek? How does Salviati explain this statement?
  • 3 November - Write about one of the following: (1) Discuss arguments from authority. Should we always accept an argument from authority? On what ground could we reject an argument from authority? What do Simplicio, Sagredo, and Salviati think about such arguments? (2) Does Salviati know Simplio's arguments on the immovability of the earth better than Simplicio knows them himself? How does this help Salviati's case? How important is it to understand the arguments of one's opponent in a debate? (3) Salviati argues that any motion of the earth must be imperceptible to those on the earth. How is this possible? Why is it important to his argument? How is Simplicio begging the question when he argues that, for example, we would see an object dropped from a tower fall differently if the earth were not moving?
  • 10 November Write about one of the following: (1) Discuss Salviati's thought experiment of being shut up in the main cabin below decks on some large ship. What does this experiment teach us about relative motion? What is the analogy with the motion of the earth? (2) On page 236, Simplicio says, “After all, Salviati, these mathematical subtleties do very well in the abstract, but they do not work out when applied to sensible and physical matters.” Here, and elsewhere, Simplicio argues that the physics of the natural world does not necessarily match the abstractions of mathematics. But in the case of the time for a cannon ball to fall from the orbit of the moon to the center of the earth, Simplicio admits that that variation is too much to be explained by a mismatch between physics and mathematics (page 270). Discuss how Simplicio and Salviati differ on their view of the usefulness of mathematics in studying the natural world. (3) Simplicio and Salviati both emphasize the importance of our senses in understanding the world around us, but they come to much different conclusions. How does that happen? What is different in their approaches? How does the relativeness of motion affect their viewpoints?
  • 17 November Write about one of the following: (1) On page 307, Sagredo criticizes the author whom Simplicio has been quoting for acting “as if nature had first made the brain of man, and then arranged everything to conform to the capacity of the intellect.” Rather, Sagredo thinks that “nature first made things in her own way, and then made human reason skillful enough to be able to understand, but only by hard work, some part of her secrets.” Which is it? That is, do we conform nature to our minds, or do we conform our minds to nature? Are our theories of natural science more than constructions of our minds? (2) On page 322, Sagredo comments that some “do not deduce their conclusions from its premises or establish it by reason, but they accommodate (I should have said discommode and distort) the premises and reasons to a conclusion which for them is already established and nailed down.” How does this comment relate to the topic under debate at that moment in the discussion? Can you give other examples of this behavior? (3) Darwin and Galileo both questioned common beliefs of their days, offering new descriptions of nature which differed significantly from what was thought to be established knowledge. Compare how they presented their arguments. Do you think one was more effective than the other?