History and Philosophy of Science

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History and Philosophy of Science (or HPS) is a subject that aims to understand the nature of science and its role in society by exploring the social forces that shaped the sciences across time and the different ideologies that underpin scientific inquiry. If you’ve ever wondered where the “scientific method” comes from, or how scientists deal with discoveries that could be used for great harm, or why physics students (used to) have higher paying jobs than biology students, then you could find your answers here (or better yet, find more questions to ask!) This subject may seem rather abstract and disconnected from the other natural sciences, but it provides a fundamental understanding of how scientific inquiry functions and the historical factors that contributed to science as we know it today, greatly enriching your appreciation and understanding of the scientific work of other disciplines. If you just want to know how and why science is the way it is, as we study and expand it, or would just like a break from problem sheets and fact regurgitation, then this subject may be of interest to you.

Some STEM students might be concerned that they will be overwhelmed, as they haven’t taken history nor philosophy before, or haven’t done anything related to humanities for a long time. However, you don’t need a background in either to take this subject, and the lecturers and supervisors will help ease you into studying and revising. The lecture handouts can be a little sparse, so do remember to take good notes. The lectures are also at 5pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, which is great for those who can’t wake up early.

The lecture series titles are listed below:


  • History of Science
    • Early Modern Science, 1400-1700
  • Philosophy of Science
    • What is Science?
    • Philosophy of Medicine


  • History of Science
    • Empires of Knowledge, 1789-1914
    • Science in Power, 1914-1989
  • Philosophy of Science
    • Philosophy of Science in Practice
    • Space, Time and Reality: The Philosophy of Physics
    • Is Social Science an Oxymoron?


  • History of Science
    • Science and Crisis, 1989-present
  • Philosophy of Science
    • Can Machines Think?
    • Philosophy of Biology


Your supervisions will likely alternate weekly between History of Science and Philosophy of Science, with a different supervisor for the two fields. Supervisions are an opportunity to practise writing out discursive essays for history and philosophy, which can be slightly difficult for those who are new at it. Your supervisors will guide you in structuring arguments and finding examples for your essay questions, which in turn help you to better understand how to critically think about questions regarding the history and philosophy of science. As a general tip, your lectures will provide the basic facts and ideas needed to answer the questions, but for a good essay, you will need additional historical narratives or philosophical arguments that you get from the recommended readings. Besides this, supervisions are a sounding board for any questions that you come across in the lectures or in your readings, which happens often in this course.

HPS supervisions can really be a breath of fresh air, especially for those doing physical sciences, as you spend more time chatting with your supervisors about interesting things relating to that particular topic, way more than you discuss your supervision work for the week. It can be a lot of fun to explore lots of interesting questions that have not crossed your mind before (such as “Can being ugly be considered a disease?” among other fascinating questions).


Good news! There are no practicals in the History and Philosophy of Science. However, the extra time you get from this is meant to go into your recommended and additional readings, so don’t think you’re completely off the hook. Doing well in HPS will require a lot of reading, far more than most STEM students, so you will need to cultivate the ability to read quickly and effectively, skimming through texts while still picking up the key concepts and ideas.


Revising for HPS really just amounts to a lot of reading and writing. There are a lot of recommended readings, almost certainly too much for someone to finish on top of two other subjects. It is probably wise to pick 4-5 topics to focus on, then reading up and practising essays for those topics. Do remember that the exam has a required question that broadly covers the entire course, so you need to have a wide enough variety of topics to tackle that question properly. At this point it is useful to note down the names of specific historians that have raised different and interesting historical narratives, and specific philosophers that have raised arguments and counterarguments to the questions you are discussing. Namedropping these thinkers will show evidence that you have done your reading. (Extra tip: you can also go through your lecturers’ papers and cite their arguments in your essays!)

You can find past HPS papers very easily on Google, and they provide a good idea of what the exam will be like. Your supervisors can help comment on essay plans and practice essays, but do remember to send them in early to avoid swamping them with work. Given the large amount of reading to do, it can also be helpful to team up with a few other HPS students and share essays, to increase the amount of content that you all can cover.


The HPS exam is entirely essay-based, and is split into two papers, one for history and one for philosophy. Each paper has two sections, with Section A consisting of usually 2 questions that broadly cover the entire course, and Section B consisting of questions that are from specific topics covered in the course. You will need to answer 1 question from Section A and 3 questions from Section B, usually with a word limit of 1500 words. The format of the paper has fluctuated in the past few years due to the pandemic, but the most recent papers have been conducted online, in an open-book format.

Your biggest enemy in the exam will be time, and there will be hardly any time for you to think up arguments while writing your essays. It will serve you well to have your arguments and examples prepped and ready when entering the exam. Also, try not to let perfect be the enemy of good, and spend too much time on any single question. Remember that 4 mediocre essays are better than 3 perfect essays and 1 unanswered question.

Useful resources

  • Dear, P. (2009) Revolutionizing the sciences: European knowledge and its ambitions, 1500-1700, 2nd ed. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  • Shapin, S. (1996) The scientific revolution. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press
  • Cambridge History of Science, volumes 3-5
  • Morus, I. R. (2005) When physics became king. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press
  • Oreskes, N. (2019) Why Trust Science? Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  • Lewens, T. (2015) The Meaning of Science. London: Pelican Books
  • Longino, H. (1990) Science as Social Knowledge: Values and Objectivity in Scientific Inquiry. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

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