28098 - History of the Scientific Thought (1) (LM)

Course Unit Page


This teaching activity contributes to the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN 2030 Agenda.

Gender equality Affordable and clean energy

Academic Year 2018/2019

Learning outcomes

At the end of the course the students will have: conducted an in-depth exploration of historical cases and contemporary data in order to understand the interactions between science and society and the way they have evolved over time; learned to assess the sources and use the critical tools needed to navigate independently in a society in which science, technology and medicine have for centuries represented fundamental factors of development as well as key cultural and educational resources.

Course contents

Topic of the course: “Us, Science and Society”


Even today experts - especially scientists - are often represented as locked up in an (imaginary) ivory tower that supposedly renders them immune to the influence of the culture that surrounds them, along with the knowledge they produce.

However, it is well known that natural philosophers and scientists, at least since Galileo's time, have been engaged in recounting their work to a public of non-experts: financiers and politicians, male and female readers. Furthermore, as we shall see, these accounts experts deliver to the public are constructed in relation to a number of contingent issues, as well as the long-term needs of the scientific community.

Investigating the history, forms and functions of the circulation of scientific knowledge - and in particular the Nineteenth century science popularization and the contemporary science communication -, will help us to understand interactions between experts and the non-expert general public.

Investigating such interactions will help us to answer questions such as:

- Together with the human-nature relationship, made up of practices and quantification, mathematics and experimentation, what else becomes a scientific fact by being accepted by the community of experts and the general public, be it evolutionism, a vaccine or the internet?

- Why, how and under what circumstances have experts presented their work to the institutions they belong to, be they courts, churches or military or university organizations, or even entrepreneurs, the public and their representatives, such as politicians?

- These processes are simultaneously cognitive and communicative, and tend to bring content and contexts together. What technological and communication tools contribute to these processes?

We will use the history and social studies of science. Most importantly, we will analyze the accounts of some of the scientists who have reflected on their profession, typically driven by political objectives and avoiding the hearsay and ipse dixit that continue to pollute science textbooks and media.

We will start from the present, an historical moment in which science, technology and medicine are the cultures that underpin the global's economies and local-level societal organizations, not to mention all of our personal daily actions.

From there we will look back in time and, after traveling between the early modern age and Enlightenment, we will look more in depth at the period between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It was at that point that the "steam society" was slowly replaced by one based on electricity, the same one we find ourselves in today, in the age of the internet: an era in which communication has literally achieved the speed of light.

Indeed, it was in that period, known as the Liberal Age, in Italy, that the production of goods and tools - both material, conceptual, and communicative - began to accelerate, and this trend went on to become atypical characteristic of the twentieth century.

In that context of intense upheaval, the new social figure of professional scientists grasped how important it was to present themselves and their work to the literate public taking shape in the areas affected by epochal economic and social change, including parts of Italy.

The process through which male and, as we shall see, also female scientists became professional was accompanied by innovations in the methods of mass communication; as a result of these innovations, scientific literature for non-experts became extraordinarily successful in Europe as well as Italy, giving rise to a phenomenon known in all European languages as "science for all".

By analyzing the circumstances that helped this body of literature enjoy become popular south of the Alps, we will be able to identify certain salient traits that continue to characterize contemporary relations between us, science and society.



The program is the same for both attending and non-attending students, and consists of:

1. studying the modules and texts on the e-Learning platform, which can be accessed automatically by students who have signed up to include this course in their curriculum (150 pp. c.). A list of text in English will be available for Erasmus students.

2. P. Govoni, Un pubblico per la scienza, Roma, Carocci, 20182.

Teaching methods

Face-to-face lessons and in-depth seminars; visit to a museum where we will analyze the communicational strategies used to narrate the role of women, science and technology in the social and economic development of the area. The e-Learning platform will provide: a detailed overview of the topics covered in each individual lesson; an extensive bibliography and list of websites from which to obtain further information; articles and essays in pdf format; and illustrative Power Point presentations.

Students' participation in the classroom is of great importance in this course. Group discussion and inquiry-based learning will be encouraged. For this reason, students will be given the opportunity- individually or in small groups - to organize presentations on the topics covered by the course, in agreement with the professor. Up to 3 points can be earned by delivering an in-class presentation.

Towards the end of the course, students will be able to take a short written exam on what they observed at the museum (NOT part of the exam program). They will be able to earn up to 5 points with the in itinere exam, which will be added to their exam scores.

Those who wish to attend and participate in the museum trip must confirm their participation with the professor on the first day of the course, in person or by email.

Assessment methods

There will be a written exam in the first exam session that follows the end of the course. The other exams held during the year will be oral.

Written exam

Students will be asked to respond to three of the questions outlined under points 1 and 2 of the Texts/Bibliography section (open answer; one and a half hour time limit; students may not leave before the entire time has elapsed). The written test is for all students but in particular those attending lectures, and there will be an extra section for attendees (in addition to the ones they may choose among) asking them to express a personal opinion about the issues discussed in class. There will be a written exam in the first exam session that follows the end of the course.

Oral exam

At the oral examination, students will be asked to respond to 2 or, at most, 3 questions outlined under points 1 and 2 of the Texts/Bibliography section, starting with a topic of their choice. The duration of the exam will be inversely proportional to the student's preparation: from a minimum of approximately 10 minutes to a maximum of approximately 20 minutes. The suggestions for delivering an in-class presentation provided in the link will also be useful for the oral exam. There will be oral examinations during each exam session.

Assessment criteria for both written and oral exams:

Assessment will be based on: the student's knowledge of the texts outlined under points 1 and 2 of the Texts/Bibliography section; ability to state arguments coherently, succinctly and in an individual manner; accuracy of expression.

Grades are in calculated out of a maximum of thirty points and vary from 18/30, for a passing grade, to 30/30 and Honors, for an excellent grade. For further information please refer to the professor's website


Teaching tools

PowerPoint; E-learning platform; a museum and other research institutions.

Office hours

See the website of Paola Govoni