// The Course – Stuart Firestein

Stuart Firestein

W3920y IGNORANCE 2 pts, S. Firestein.

Scientific knowledge increases at an exponential rate. Curiously ignorance does not similarly decrease.  The basic activity of science is in fact confronting ignorance, and often producing more of it.  In this course we will examine the scientific approach to ignorance, primarily through invited lectures from working scientists. They will discuss the state of ignorance in their field and in their individual laboratories. We hope thereby to gain an understanding of the scientific process by analyzing how it approaches what it doesn’t know.

The class will meet once per week for 2 hours, Wednesdays, 6:00-8:00 PM. Enrollment limited to seniors, science background helpful but not required.


Description and Rationale

The class is to be called IGNORANCE.  It will, in contrast with a more typical science class, focus particularly on what we don’t know.  This is, after all, the essence of science as practiced daily in our labs and in our heads. In his Nobel Award remarks David Gross, this year’s winner of the Physics Prize, noted that “the most important product of science is ignorance”.  Can we communicate this vital perspective to students, who I fear currently believe that science is only a game of facts?

In contrast to courses and media that address the “Big Questions” of science this course is to be a detailed investigation of ignorance as a creative force in science.  It will approach ignorance through a series of ‘case studies’: interactions with working scientists discussing the immediate questions that they are working on in their laboratories.  Why do we need to know these things; what can we do if we know them; what can’t we do if we don’t; what are the obstacles; what are the solutions?  We will be interested in hearing what is important to the individual scientist and how these questions came to be central to their laboratories– whether by accident or by design, whether because of their solvability or their intractability, whether by budgetary considerations or by imagination, whether because the field demands answers or because the field is otherwise ignoring these issues.  Or some combination of these and other factors.

As Marie Curie once wrote to her brother, “One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done…”

In the spirit of that remark I hope we can provide a glimpse into what drives science and those who do it.  I want to offer a view of science as something beyond a long list of facts to know, and it seems to me that this is best exemplified by the individual investigator and his/her ongoing work on what we don’t know.

The basic format of the course will be as follows:

Seminar class to meet once per week for 2-2.5 hours (total of 15 meetings).

The core of the course will be 7-8 guest lecture/discussions by science faculty with active research programs.  The invitees will be chosen from a range of scientific disciplines including biology and biomedical sciences, psychology, chemistry, physics, mathematics and statistics, computer science, earth sciences.  The presentation format will depend on the particular individual, but it is intended to be more of a discussion than a prepared lecture.  In general it will consist of a discussion begun between myself and the invited scientist that will expand to the class more generally.  Where required, background material will be presented.

The emphasis as described above will not be on simply identifying the “Big Questions” in a field (e.g. How did the universe begin?  What is consciousness?) but rather on the specific research programs directed to specific, more focused, questions.

The course will begin with an introductory lecture and discussion in which we will outline the course, assign readings and engage in discussion of the nature of the problem.  Foremost among the goals of the first class will be to arrive at a set of questions that we will ask each of our speakers to address.

Among these might be:

What was the state of ignorance in your field 10, 15, 25 years ago, and how has that changed?

How do you identify ignorance that interests you?

How do you talk about what you don’t know?

How do you prioritize ignorance?

How much of ignorance is chance?

What was the main thrust of your last grant proposal?

What will be the main thrust of your next grant proposal?

Is there something you would like to work on knowing but can’t?

Because of technical limitations? Money, manpower?


In between the guest lectures we will meet to discuss the lectures we have heard and prepare for those upcoming.   Students will be asked to submit short comments or questions on each each talk.  These will be distributed by email to the entire class prior to the following class meeting.  These on-line threads will be the basis for our discussion.

Preparation for the following lecture will include discussion of background material provided by the lecturer (primarily review articles). Where appropriate we may solicit a post doctoral fellow or senior graduate student from the guest lecturer’s laboratory to participate in the background discussions.

The final class meeting will be devoted to an assessment of the course – did we learn anything about ignorance?  Can we make any new conclusions about ignorance?  Do we have a better, deeper understanding of the dynamics of scientific investigation?  What is common about ignorance in different fields? What is different or specific?

A final paper of no more than 1500 words pages will be required during finals week.  The subject of this paper can range from a detailed  analysis of a single lecture or field to a more general examination of ignorance and scientific progress.  It will require original readings to expand on the particular issues only touched on in the course.  While 1500 words may seem short, let me remind you of the story of Blaise Pascal who ended a a long letter to a friend with the apology that he would have been briefer if he had more time.

We will also discuss such issues as the limits of knowledge and more importantly the limits of ignorance; how we know something, or think we do, the value of facts, making scientific predictions, ignorance in science education and ignorance in setting science policy.  Our readings will be drawn for the list below as well as articles from the primary literature that will be posted on the course website.

Reading List

Preparatory readings will be scientific review articles aimed at the non-specialist.

A possible reading list will include selections form the following books and articles:

Barrow, John D. Impossibility : The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits. New York: Oxford UP, Incorporated, 1999.
Well written provocative book on, slightly mathematical in approach, but very accessible.  Barrow has written numerous science  books for a lay audience but he does not oversimplify.


Byers, William.  How Mathematicians Think: Using Ambiguity, Contradiction and Paradox to Create Mathematics.  Princeton:Princeton University Press, 2007
This is an exceptional book but requires a commitment from the reader.  It is very mathematical, although none of the math is in itself difficult.  Very enlightening and well written book, and fairly accessible –especially for a book about math.  The author is a serious practitioner of Zen Buddhism and so enjoys the notion of paradox as the path to creativity. 


Casti, John L, and Karlqvist, Anders.  Boundaries and Barriers.  Perseus Books 1996.
Subtitled On the Limits to Scientific Knowledge.  This is an edited volume of essays contributed by particiapnats at a 1995 meeting held in Abisco, Sweden, above the Arctic circle , to discuss the logical not the practical limits to knowledge of a scientific sort.  Very provocative.


Comins, Neil F. Heavenly Errors : Misconceptions about the Real Nature of the Universe. New York: Columbia UP, 2003.
Astronomically focused book about just what it says – how we could have been so wrong based on true facts.


Horgan, John. The End of Science : Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age. London: Abacus, 1998.
This is true pop science and meant to be provocative – interviews with numerous famous scientists who all seem to be saying that there isn’t much left to be known.  It’s a quick read and easy to attack – maybe too easy.


Johnson, George. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments. New York: Random House, 2008.
A nice review of science book. What is common among these experiments?

Lightman, Alan. A Sense of the Mysterious : Science and the Human Spirit. New York: Vintage, 2006.
Lightman is a physicist turned author – of both non-fictional and fictional science books.  Very clear writing style, these are a series of mostly personal essays about doing science.   An easy read but leaves much to be thought about and discussed.


Maddox, John. What Remains to Be Discovered? : Mapping the Secrets of the Universe, the Origins of Life and the Future of the Human Race. New York: Free P, 1999
Maddox was the long time editor of Nature and has a very long view of science.  This book is a kind of complement to our course – it tries to analyze the big questions in science, while we are more interested in case histories – how individual scientists manage what they don’t know. Concentrates on Astrophyiscs in Part 1 and Biology (molecular biology primarily) in Part 2.

Medawar, P.B. The Limits of Science. Canada: Harper Collins, 1984Old but classic text by one of the great immunologists ever.  Thoughtful and beautifully written collection of essays.  Lot’s of ideas in here.

Poovey, Mary. A History of the Modern Fact : Problems of Knowledge in the Sciences of Wealth and Society. New York: University of Chicago P, 1998.
This is a big book – maybe too big to be read all the way through for this course, and some of it is more social and political than scientifically oriented.  But there are some great chapters in here to write a paper on.  Poovey is a literary critic and historian.


Rescher, Nicholas. Predicting the Future: An Introduction to the Theory of Forecasting. New York: State University of New York P, 1997.

Rescher, Nicholas.  the Limits of Science University of Pittsburgh Press revised edition 1999Rescher is a well known and highly respected philosopher of science and here he explores, in great detail, the limits of science as a method of discovery.  Many very interesting ideas in each chapter.

Rothman, Tony, and George Sudarshan.  Doubt and Certainty : The Celebrated Academy Debates on Science, Mysticism, Reality. New York: Perseus Books Group, 2000
A bit of a quirky book – very physics oriented, with lot’s of short vignettes that are often quite compelling.


Stanford, P. Kyle.  Exceeding Our Grasp.  Oxford University Press. 2006
Stanford is a serious philosopher of science and this is a serious  book, although quite accessible.  He explores how and why it is that scientists with all the data needed are nonetheless unable to come up with a correct hypothesis – Newton and Gravity, Darwin (and others) and genes – this is the “problem of unconceived alternatives.”  Very disconcerting book for the scientific realist.


Other readings will include essays and book chapters from several sources – Scientific American, Science, Nature. Texts (still  to be decided) might include Horgan’s, The End of Science; Weiner, Time Love Memory; Maddox, What Remains to be Discovered; Gallison, Einstein’s Clocks; Poincare’s Maps; Kuhn, The Strucutre of Scientific Revolutions; Barrow, Impossibility; Casti and Karlqvist, Boundaries and Limits.



Stuart Firestein

Department of Biological Sciences

923 Fairchild, MC2438