User Tools

Site Tools


Week 4. Lives

This week is all about how things transform, mature, reproduce, move, grow, heal, and (generally) live. We willl explore how and why life has been a subject for science and how many different sciences have had things to say about life. We will consider the banana.

What to do during week 4

  • Guest discussion on Tuesday with Dr Miguel Garcia-Sancho!
  • The usual exercises and proofs are below. Pace yourself, revisit or catch up previous weeks, and generally try to find things that are interesting to you so that you are motivated to learn more! You do not have to spend an equal amount of time on each unit.
  • The value of the florilegium to everyone grows as more people try it out! Now that we have finished the Collections unit you have even more historical context for the activity.
  • Depending on your goals for the course, you should be reading1) at least a couple items from the Resource List for each unit, doing some writing and reflecting, and trying a variety of course activities. By the end of the course, you will need to be able to show how you have met the learning outcomes by engaging with a variety of topics in a way that meets your goals and interests.
  • Now that you are more comfortable with the course format, revisit the Assessment information and think about what kinds of proofs of learning you might want to submit. Most students will submit portfolios of mostly Short Responses but there is a lot of room for variety and creativity.
  • Sign up to visit the Edinburgh Anatomical Museum on either 22 or 29 February (we can only accommodate 20 students per date).

Lecture Slides

Unit 4 slides (use your Edinburgh login)


Critical Thinking

  1. List some living things. What do they have in common? List some non-living things. What do they have in common? Define life. How would you determine whether something you had never seen before was alive?
  2. Note living things you encounter this week. How does their status as living change how you interact with them? How does it change how you notice them, how you value them, how you imagine their pasts and futures?
  3. What is the smallest living thing? What is the largest? The oldest? The most interesting?


During units 5 and 6 you will be asked to do a mid-semester self-evaluation. To start preparing for that, take a moment to think about your engagement with the course and whether you need to make any adjustments.

  • Workload. How is this course fitting into the other things that require your attention this semester? What do you need to prioritise to get the most from your learning in this course and overall? Are there time management or study skills that you want to work on this semester?
  • Subject and Interest. Have you been finding interesting things to think about and explore in this course? Remember that the course is designed to give you as much flexibility as possible to pursue ideas that interest you, but that also means the course depends on you to explore and find interests to pursue. How have you been following up on interesting topics and how might you continue to learn about them through the textbooks and Resource List? If you haven't found things that capture your interest yet, where can you look to find them? If there are particular topics you are hoping will come up in the course or that you would like to explore more within the course framework, you can get in touch with Dr Barany for tips on how to connect them to the Resource List, assessment, and other learning activities.

Reading Guide

This week's readings challenge you to think expansively about what counts as a 'life science' and about how 'life' can be investigated and explained scientifically.

A group of readings at the top of the list have the Essential tag as particularly important examples of some of the major perspectives we are considering this week. Creager's Life of a Virus and Kohler's Lords of the Fly examine how 20th-century scientists developed experimental models to study the fundamentals of biological life. Nummedal's history of alchemy in the Holy Roman Empire describes a multifaceted science of natural transformation. Secord's Victorian Sensation places us in 19th-century popular and scientific debates about nature in the lively era just before Origin of Species. Richards's book chapter in the edited volume Wider Domain of Evolutionary Thought examines Victorian norms and evolutionary theories of gender roles, and how they related to each other.

Additional readings expand on these and related themes:

  • Animate sciences: Truitt
  • Evolution: Bowler, Jordanova, Roe, Browne, Nyhart, Richards (R), Ospovat et al
  • Genetics (we will return to this in unit 8): Müller-Wille, Keller, Kohler
  • Microbiology, bacteria, and viruses: Mendelsohn, Worboys, Rheinberger, Geison
  • Medicine and life science: Foucault, Todes, Skloot
  • Special themes: Lidgard et al


A. Scientists and philosophers have historically proposed ideas about the nature of life that responded to or incorporated aspects of their experience of their social contexts. Identify and explain one example of this from the course materials, showing how theories of life interacted with concerns and ideas about their producers' societies.

B. The quality of life has sometimes been rooted in observable features and phenomena, sometimes in unobservable features and phenomena, and sometimes in features and phenomena made visible using specialized instruments or procedures. Using examples and frameworks from the course, discuss one or more aspects of what it has meant to make life visible or invisible.

C. The meaning of life has often been explored most fruitfully at its margins: in viruses, molecular concoctions, or apparently-inert materials. Identify and explain the significance of a marginal form of life in its historical context, bearing in mind that its meaning and liveliness in the past may not match how we see it today.

Reading like a historian, so not every word from start to finish.
intro/lives.txt · Last modified: 2024/02/05 12:36 by mjb