Mountain’s Book Recommendations:

By Mountain.Barber|April 5, 2017Opinions, Student Writing|

book coverThe Structure of Scientific Revolutions, by Thomas Kuhn.

If you’ve ever been annoyed by someone talking about shifting their paradigm, you can thank the physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions was the work that introduced the concept into the popular parlance, and all of the word’s annoying overuse can be traced right back to this book. Kuhn deserves our forgiveness, however—The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most important works of history and philosophy of science ever published.

Kuhn attempts to explain exactly how scientific progress occurs. Breaking with the then traditional model of steady, linear scientific progress, he described it as a series of abrupt, major changes—paradigm shifts. Kuhn presents examples from physics, biology, geology, and others, all of which settle quite strongly into his model.

Though Kuhn’s discussion of paradigms is generally the best remembered idea from this work, he also spends considerable time talking about other ideas, including incommensurability. The literal definition of the word from mathematics is “having no common measure”. In the scientific context, it’s… considerably more complicated, and quite useful. Kuhn also spends quite a while talking about the Copernican revolution and Galileo, in a very different light than usual.

There is plenty of criticism of his work, of course. Kuhn’s conclusions about the social sciences are much more widely challenged than his conclusions regarding the hard sciences. (Though to his credit, he treats the social sciences with much more respect than most physicists.) Paradigms and incommensurability often themselves come under direct attack. Still, however, this is a text well worth reading. It’s relatively short, and far less dry than one would think. It’s the next best thing to essential reading for anyone going into the sciences.

 

Book coverThe Invention of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf.

Alexander Von Humboldt is the most famous scientist you’ve never heard of.

Humboldt Park in Chicago is named after him. The Humboldt neighborhood, where Cascade Campus stands, is named after him. So is Humboldt County, California. There’s a Humboldt Squid, a Humboldt Penguin, a fruit tree, a subspecies of Amazon River dolphin, around twenty cities, an asteroid, four universities, and countless more things named after Alexander Von Humboldt. He’s a big deal, and yet the vast majority of Americans have never heard of him.

The German naturalist is essentially responsible for how we view nature today. Not merely our ideas about it, but our conception as to what nature is. Von Humboldt was the first person to quantify and systematically describe the changes in the ecosystem by altitude. He essentially founded the sciences of physical geography, biogeography, and meteorology. Von Humboldt was the first scientist to measure and examine species in relation to their neighbors and environment. During his lifetime he was one of the most famous men in the world, and was close friends with Thomas Jefferson (who pronounced him “the most scientific man of his age”), Simon Bolivar (who considered Humboldt his greatest teacher), Goethe (they were basically BFFs), Darwin (who idolized him) and many others. So why did we forget him? Anti-German hysteria during WWI, basically.

Andrea Wulf has written a fantastic biography of a man who single handedly drove Kuhnian-style paradigm shifts in multiple sciences, as well as being one of the dominant cultural influences of his time. The Invention of Nature is an enjoyable biography that has won numerous awards, including the prestigious Royal Society Science Book Prize in 2016.

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