History and Philosophy of Science
The history and philosophy of science option (HPS) provides students the opportunity to explore the historical evolution of the sciences and the philosophical perspectives that inform them, as well as the dynamics between science, technology, and other human endeavors.
HPS courses in history help students learn about the origins of experimental practice; the social and institutional contexts of science; the origins and applications of quantitative methods; specific developments since antiquity in physics, biology, chemistry, geography and cartography, medicine; and biographical and comparative studies in these fields. HPS courses in philosophy deal with issues in causation and explanation; the foundations of probability and statistical inference; and philosophical problems in particular fields such as biology, mathematics, medicine, neuroscience, and physics. In their coursework, students receive regular feedback from the faculty on their research, writing, and presentation skills. They have the opportunity to carry out independent research, especially in their thesis work, and present their findings in a seminar setting.
This option thus aims to give students a broad, basic understanding of how science is practiced and how that practice has changed over time. Students learn to address questions such as: To what extent was the scientific revolution revolutionary? What is a scientific explanation and how do scientists go about constructing and justifying one? How have conceptions of scientific experimentation changed? What are the ethical issues raised by experimentation with human or animal subjects? How has relativity theory changed our conceptions of space and time? The option is designed to complement the regular science curriculum at Caltech, offering students the opportunity to enlarge upon, and to contextualize, the strong technical skills they acquire in other courses and options.
Because of its emphasis on essay writing and formulating complex philosophical and historical arguments, our curriculum provides training in writing and communication skills that are increasingly vital today. The HPS option provides excellent preparation for students going into law, business, medicine, science journalism and public affairs, and it also prepares students for graduate work in the history and/or philosophy of science.
The minor in HPS is designed for students who want to pursue concentrated study in the field without the extensive course work and the senior thesis required by the HPS option.