Free online course: “History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects,” University of Leeds

This free online course offers an introduction to the History and Philosophy of Science. The course is informal, with no exams and no certificate at the end. But anyone, aged 16 and up, who is curious to know more about the subject will find it presented in a lively, accessible and unusual way.

At the core of the course are 20 films from a public lecture series given in 2016-7 by staff and graduate students in the Centre for History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Leeds. Each lecture uses an object from the University’s Museum of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine as a jumping-off point for explorations of major themes in the historical development and philosophical interpretation of science.

The opening lecture shows how an ancient Cypriot horse-and-rider figurine can serve as a point of entry to the long run of the study of the human mind, from Plato to Freud. The second lecture uses a two-headed fish, preserved in a jar, to look at the question of monsters and monstrosity, emphasizing the challenge that deformity posed for pre-Darwinian science, when God’s good design-work in organisms was taken for granted. From there, the objects and topics examined cover a wide range. Some objects are emblematic of the history of science as anyone would tell it, such as an air-pump (in a lecture on physics and the laws of nature), a microscope (in a lecture on observation and its relationship to theory), and a stethoscope (in a lecture on medical diagnosis and the shift in emphasis, around 1800, from outward symptoms to inner causes). Other objects are more surprising: a nineteenth-century Biblical herbarium, stocked with specimens of plants named in the Bible (in a lecture on science and religion); an X-ray camera used in the 1930s to take the first X-ray photograph of DNA (in a lecture on molecular biology and its little-known industrial beginnings); and the prototype Newlyn-Phillips machine, which in the late 1940s used flowing water to model, and even compute, the flow of money in national economies, making it the world’s first economics computer (in a lecture on models, mathematics and economics). Most surprising of all, perhaps, is a perpetual motion machine…

The course is self-paced. But beginning this Friday, 15 May, and continuing for the next month, current and former members of the Leeds Centre will be hosting online discussions of the lectures.

To join the course:

(1) Go to Blackboard Learn.
(2) Search for “History and Philosophy of Science in 20 Objects” via the search window (where it says “Find the Right Course for You”)
(3) Click on “Enroll”
(4) At the bottom of the pop-up window, click on “Don’t have an account?  Create one here.”  (If you don’t see that, click on “Enroll” again, or — if that doesn’t work — use a different internet browser)
(5) After you’ve created an account, you’ll be given a link that will take you to the course homepage

For further information, please email Gregory Radick at

For more on the Leeds Centre for History and Philosophy of Science, including MA and PhD programmes, please visit the Centre’s website.  For more on undergraduate programmes, please visit the University of Leeds coursefinder.