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More Information
For further information about the Frontiers of Science course, please contact David Helfand, Chair, Department of Astronomy, at djh@astro.columbia.edu.

For further information about publicly available digital media associated with the course, please contact Adriane Gelpi, Editor, Science and Medicine at Columbia University Digital Knowledge Ventures, at ag2234@columbia.edu.


Frontiers of Science: A Science Course for the Core Curriculum at Columbia University

Scientific Habits of Mind
In 1938, the American philosopher and educator John Dewey published a book entitled "Logic: The Theory of Inquiry" in which he coined the phrase "scientific habits of mind." He characterized these habits as follows:

1) Logical thinking

2) Quantitative analysis

3) Deductive reasoning

4) Proper questioning

5) Reliance on sound evidence

It is not that these habits of mind are all unique to science; the historian strives mightily to obtain sound evidence, and the plumber, we hope, relies on logical thinking. Science, however, is a system of inquiry which insists on applying all of these habits, all of the time. It is fundamentally a communal activity, and the community is ever-ready to point out when one of its members strays from the path these habits prescribe. The evidence—facts about nature—is thus soundly accumulated. The quantitative models we deduce from these facts allow us to answer proper questions in a logical fashion. We make progress not by establishing absolute truth, but by falsifying models that fail to account for all of the evidence . . . and then creating better models. Science is teleological—there is an end we are attempting to approach: a rigorous, logical, and quantitative description of nature.

We have two major goals for a Core course in science. The first is to convey our conviction that science is an exciting, dynamic, intellectual activity of profound importance in the modern world. It is not entered via the memorization of bold-faced words in thick textbooks, but as an activity that engages the mind in exploration and discovery. The lectures will convey this excitement and this intellectual dynamism while illustrating the relevance of modern science to life in today's world.

The second goal is to equip all Columbia students with the habits of mind necessary to pursue the further study of science and, in our view, to engage in effective participation in society. The lectures, background material, exercises, and discussion topics are all being designed to reinforce the quantitative reasoning skills and logical thought processes required. These include a focus on:

—Estimation

—Error and uncertainty

—Probability and statistics

—Graphical representation of data

—The role of models and data in science

—Perspective on the scales of space and time

Our plan is to weave these themes through the series of lectures, and to reinforce them with activities and discussion in the seminars.