Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 1 session / week, 3 hours / session


This course will focus on one particular aspect of the history of computing: the use of the computer as a scientific instrument. The electronic digital computer was invented to do science, and its applications range from physics to mathematics to biology to the humanities. What has been the impact of computing on the practice of science? Is the computer different from other scientific instruments? Is computer simulation a valid form of scientific experiment? Can computer models be viewed as surrogate theories? How does the computer change the way scientists approach the notions of proof, expertise, and discovery? No comprehensive history of scientific computing has yet been written. This seminar will examine scientific articles, participants' memoirs, and works by historians, sociologists, and anthropologists of science to provide multiple perspectives on the use of computers in diverse fields of physical, biological, and social sciences and the humanities. We will explore how the computer transformed scientific practice, and how the culture of computing was influenced, in turn, by scientific applications.


Students are expected to participate in class discussions by reading the assigned materials before class, thinking about the issues and historical patterns suggested in the readings, and relating these issues to their own personal experience. Students will submit a short (one page) reading response paper in the morning before each class. The papers are intended to provoke discussion, rather than give definitive answers. The instructor will provide tentative questions for response papers, but students are encouraged to raise their own questions. The response papers will serve as a basis for subsequent discussion in class.

Assignments for this course also include a final paper (10-15 pages; typed, double-spaced, with 1.25" margins). The final paper is due in class on Session 14. On that day, students will give brief presentations (5-10 min.) of their final papers. A proposal for the final paper (1-2 pages) is due in class on Session 9. It will receive the instructor's feedback the following week. The proposal should include:

  1. the central question the final paper will address;
  2. the historical significance of this question and how it relates to discussions in class;
  3. a brief outline; and
  4. a tentative bibliography, including both primary and secondary sources.


The seminar meets only once a week. This means that attendance is particularly important. If you do need to miss class, you must obtain permission from the instructor in advance.
Final grades will be determined as follows:

Class Participation 30
Reading Response Papers 40
Final Paper 30