This post includes 10 great starting places for researching topics online without resorting either to Google or Wikipedia.
I'm going to walk you through each of these as I research the history of science and the scientific method. Watch how much fun I have in diversifying my online discovery methods. Hope you'll try some of these!
- Open Educational Resources like the OER Commons. This aggregates lots of sources for free educational material, including course syllabi, labs, audio or video lectures, homework assignments, discussion forums, games, lesson plans, simulations, etc. -- all of which are likely to include various interesting ways into a given subject.
For example, if you search the syllabi of various courses, you start to see how a given author, work, or concept fits into multiple different disciplines. When I searched for history of the scientific method on OER Commons, it returned an abstract and link to an MIT course on the rhetoric of science; and a learning module from Purdue focused on primary and secondary schools that claimed that muslims created the scientific method (this caught my attention, as did the fact that this resource included image sets). That resource was also correlated to California and national learning standards about the history of science. Looked pretty solid.
- Learning Portals like Connexions, Rice University's content commons that includes online courses and modules. (You can create and publish your own teaching and learning modules here about anything).
My search on the history of science and the scientific method at Connexions yielded resources about science in the middle ages (reminding me that the formalization of the scientific method in the 17th century was preceded by Roger Bacon's work in the 13th century). I really loved a module about the impact of the scientific revolution, partly because it included several paragraph-sized case studies of scientists developing experimental methods (Bacon, Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, Hooke, Newton). I also was intrigued by a module about the early history of nanotechnology (a subject I was reading about this summer). It surprised me to learn that this field has developed, in part, independently of the scientific method through high-concept "visions" by controversial innovators. And here I thought every scientist primarily worked through the scientific method these days.
- Course syllabi through Curriki. Teachers are great filters for relevance, and a syllabus gives a quick outline of what's important within a given field. Curriki also links to learning objects and teaching media that go along with courses at various levels of education.
My search on the history of science and the scientific method on Curriki yielded lots of lesson plans, video presentations, animations, and labs -- many of which flagged as part of an "exemplary resource" rating system. I especially appreciated a reference resource called "What is inquiry vs. the scientific method?" -- scarcely a page long, but very helpful. After reviewing the basic steps of the scientific method, it showed a chart contrasting "inquiry" and "method" that to me looks a lot like Web2.0 is changing scientific processes (see Daniel's post on Open Source Science). This resource linked to the National Science Teachers Association position paper claiming that "there is no fixed sequence of steps that all scientific investigations follow. Different kinds of questions suggest different kinds of scientific investigations." Wow.
- Free Online Courses such as those found through MIT's OpenCourseWare. MIT is on the cutting edge of putting full courses (not just syllabi) online.
My search on the history of science and the scientific method on MIT's OpenCourseWare site yielded wonderfully varied results, including a course on drama and science (go figure!). Just the course calendar was fascinating. My MIT search also led me to a bibliography for a course on "the scientific essay." Nothing like a brief bibliography prepared for a current course, and briefly annotated by an expert! I noticed this list included some of my favorite science writers (Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks) and some classic history of science books (Watson's The Double Helix, on the discovery of DNA; Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions). But there were some others that looked very tasty, like Gleick's biography of Isaac Newton. My favorite: Steven Johnson's The Ghost Map, "about one cholera epidemic in London in the 1850s, and how it led to the discovery of the way cholera is contracted. A meditation on the nature of the scientific method, modern cities, and public health works." I think epidemiology is fascinating, especially as we have cyber-epidemics through viruses today.
- Educational Videos. YouTube is the popular default -- but I'm pushing students to look beyond the defaults, so I'll focus on other video services that are more focused on educational content. These include Vimeo, TeacherTube, and videosurf.
A search for "scientific method" on videosurf yielded popular culture tie-ins like an 8-min. remix of Monty Python's Holy Grail to illustrate the scientific method, or this 2-minute video discussing the popular TV series Mythbusters and whether it qualifies as science. One of the show hosts said the show is not scientific -- not because of a lack of method or rigor, but because Mythbusters did not publish their results. This is great, as it ties in the important role of communicating knowledge, not just verifying it. It also reminded me that the earliest Enlightenment science had a populist bent, and that the current TV series is actually a pretty good cousin to those early efforts to get the general public interested in science and thinking about the properties of the natural world.
When I searched Vimeo (which has very nice hi-def videos and tends to host more serious content), my search for "scientific method" took me to search results which I sorted by "most liked" and I found a nicely produced 20-minute film about the Solomon Islands. Turns out the scientific method part of that piece was simply the name of one of the music sources used in the film. I watched anyway, intrigued by this pristine, primitive culture in the Pacific. It reminded me of the Galapagos islands (as featured to a degree in the 2003 film, Master and Commander). Those are the islands that were Darwin's laboratory as he worked out his natural selection thesis. There is a connection between unspoiled, primitive places and scientific advances (part of the romance of science, perhaps). The Solomon Islands film enchanted me with the above/below water filming of surfers. I started wondering, how much does "enchanted wonder" kinds of observation (personal, irrational) connect with the detached kind of empirical observation that modern science is built upon? I love it when detours on my research take me to interesting destinations. I didn't find this hard to tie things back to the primary purpose of my research.
- Presentations on sites like Slideshare or Prezi. These are great sources for current research, and their social components makes possible following people and discovering content through those connections, favoriting presentations, etc. You can make an account and post your own presentations on either service, as I have done.
My search for the history of science and the scientific method on Prezi led me to several nice presentations outlining the scientific method (like this one). A similar search on Slideshare led me to a nice, 37-slide PowerPoint prepared for an AP European History course that briefly covered the scientific revolution and had some great images and illustrations, quick overviews of key thinkers or scientists, etc. It tied in ancient and medieval learning and the role of religion in good ways. I was glad for that, since it made me more open to looking at another of the Slideshare search results, this presentation on Islam's contribution to world civilization -- something I'd been reading about in Daniel Boorstin's book, The Discoverers, recently. This was fascinating! Now I'm wondering about how contemporary muslims are contributing to digital advances. Another great question to track down.
- Social Book Sites. If you haven't started an account at Goodreads, Shelfari, or LibraryThing, you might consider doing so. I use Goodreads, and it's a great place to keep track of books you've read, would recommend, or would like to read. There are several good ways to find information through such sites, and not just through a subject or title search.
For example, I started by updating my book shelf with those two books I mentioned above (Gleick's biography of Newton and Johnson's Ghost Map). Here's where the social part of a site like this pays off. Once I'd added the latter book to my "to read" bookshelf, it showed me that two of my friends had reviewed this book. One of them, Libby (a super smart woman I met in grad school) gave it 5 stars and a glowing review. She mentioned how the book made good use of the visual presentation of data. I appreciate knowing that (partly because I think information aesthetics is a serious emerging field) and now I want to read the book more than I might have. Thanks Libby, and thanks Goodreads. Another way into worthwhile sources through Goodreads would be through groups. I searched for "history and science" and it returned varied groups, including the "Science and Inquiry" group (511 members). I checked out that group's page and was drawn to the discussion forum titled "Education without college." It included a book very germane to my line of research, John Gribbins' The Scientists: A History of Science Told Through the Lives of Its Greatest Inventors. Lots of very interesting suggestions for intro to science or popular science reads, like Matt Ridley's Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters and Rachel Carson's classic environmental book, Silent Spring (which is now on my to-read list). When I added the Gribbin book, I noticed that its page on Goodreads said that this book appeared in a list called "Scientists and Philosophers." What I liked about the list was that you could vote on books, so it was a ranked list. No surprise to see Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions as #3 on the list. A little further down was one I hadn't heard of but looked very relevant to my query, Lisa Jardine's Ingenious Pursuits: Building the Scientific Revolution. The blurb interested me when it said "science began as a natural curiosity about the material world, inspired by diverse interests: art, religion, medicine, engineering, and more." Another one for my Goodreads to-read list. Whoa! Scrolling down on this book's page, I see that this book appears on another list, The Enlightenment and its Impact. I scanned the list to see if our curriculum for the Enlightenment was missing anything major...hmmm... something about the Scottish Enlightenment? More about America? Then I found Roger Chartier's The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe Between the 14th and 18th Centuries. The blurb said the book answers the very interesting question (at least for our Digital Civ course): "Between the end of the Middle Ages and the eighteenth century, what methods were used to monitor and control the increasing number of texts—from the early handwritten books to the later, printed volumes—that were being put into circulation?" Information overload was a problem with the last major media revolution, too.
- Recommendation Systems such as those set up through Amazon. The book lists and rating systems I mentioned from Goodreads are recommendation systems. I really like using Amazon, however, because its recommendations are very current, tied to reviews, and (if you use Amazon to buy books or to create wish lists), those recommendations are filtered by your own prior history on the site. Sometimes, the best way to discover new information is to go back to where you'd already been looking earlier.
For example, I find wish lists to be a great way to track my interests and also let others know about them. I've set up a public wishlist which I've titled "Digital Culture & New Media" which you are free to browse. Going back down through my own list, I came across Daniel Headrick's When Information Came of Age: Technologies of Knowledge in the Age of Reason and Revolution, 1700-1850. That's focused right on the period we're now studying (the Enlightenment and the rise of science). Clicking on that title takes me to Amazon's various helpful recommendation systems. First of all, in the "Frequently Bought Together" section I see this book paired with another, Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet by Asa Briggs. I quickly click through to that, check the publication date (Feb. 2010 -- good, it's recent) and browse the table of contents using Amazon's awesome "Look Inside!" feature that now allows previews of most major books. Once I read the table of contents, I added this book to my Digital Culture & New Media wish list. As soon as I did that, Amazon took me to a page, "Customers who bought this also bought" where I could see other similar books. That same feature is available as you scroll down on any book's page. I went back to the Headrick book, When Information Came of Age, and scrolled down to see what other customers who bought that book had purchased. Relevant titles showed up right away, such as Kilgour's The Evolution of the Book. But I also scrolled down to sample from a list of editorial reviews for this book. These were another kind of preview of the book, and convinced me of its relevance (as did the product description, which fits the theme of our Digital Civ course so well: "The book provides a concise and readable survey of the many conceptual developments between 1700 and 1850 and draws connections to leading technologies of today." Scrolling down I find yet further connected books, such as one under the "Books on Related Topics" section (which uses a fascinating way to find similar books by computing statistically improbable phrases in common among books). So, in addition to human recommendations based on editorial reviews and purchasing history, there is some pretty sophisticated machine parsing of content. Did it work? The first recommended book connected to When Information Came of Age was Tom Standage's The Victorian Internet, which looks at parallels between the telegraph and the Internet. How cool is that! Onto my Digital Culture & New Media list it goes.
- Blogs. Searching the blogosphere can get you to the most current discussion of topics. Good tools for doing so include Google Blog Search, Technorati, and Ice Rocket. Since I'm abstaining from Google searches for this post and I hadn't used Ice Rocket, I tried that blog search engine.
When searching blog posts on Ice Rocket for history of science and the scientific method, I came across a post called "Pre-Inquiry Checklist" that was thinking through research methodologies and tying them to teaching methods. The unnamed blog author (too bad) is working on contemporary learning styles such as project based learning (as I learned by going to his/her first post). A checklist is recommended for students so they keep their research on track. The author cites the scientific method and refers to a book called The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. It occurred to me that this is very relevant to the way that algorithmic thinking has entered our knowledge patterns as science conditions procedural inquiry. I'll have to compare notes with Daniel about algorithms. Another blog post turned up by Ice Rocket was from a blog by Jacob Schriftman. Two days ago he wrote a post titled, "Was Newton Wrong?" and talked through several of the major Enlightenment thinkers we are studying in the Digital Civ course this week. I really liked this question Schriftman asks: "That raises the question again whether scientists discover truths about nature or whether they construct interpretations of experience.... In other words, do scientists not only play by certain rules, but also make the rules?" He goes on to show how Newton sort of did both. Here's someone I'd love to have in the course we are teaching. But of course, in a way he can be, since I can respond to his blog (which I did). Ice Rocket also led me to the very interestingly titled blog, Gyrovague's Raves, where a thoughtful post on "The Limits of Science" brought me to this quotation by Patricia Fara from her book, Science: A Four Thousand Year History (2009): "There can be no cast-iron guarantee that the cutting-edge science of today will not represent the discredited alchemy of tomorrow." It's nice to see both this blog and that author continuing in the spirit of Descartes in calling into question established methods.
- Podcasts. So much audio and video content is out there that is serious, interesting, and current. While there are many ways into the universe of syndicated audio content, I'm going to look just at Apple's iTunes and specifically at iTunesU, since this draws from and appeals directly to independent learners and higher education.
When searching iTunesU (through the iTunes program on my computer) for history of science, I came across a podcast series published by the Huntington Library in California. This caught my eye because I did most of my research for my doctoral dissertation at the Huntington's rare book library. The Huntington is an impressive enclave of archives, art, and culture, and it draws a pretty impressive crowd of scholars. This podcast has an episode (of an hour's length) featuring a scholar from the University of Chicago named Noel Swerdlow speaking on "Galileo and His Impact on Science and Astronomy" (also available directly from the Huntington's website). This was given in 2009. I learned from listening that Galileo became a huge critic of Aristotle as he championed Copernicus (leading to lots of trouble). This is a solid academic lecture, marred only by having no links to the visuals he was using in the lecture.
When searching iTunes for "scientific method," I also came across this video podcast on the scientific method, walking students through a lab demonstration where they must make a hypothesis about why two different kinds of canned Coca Cola don't float the same in water. I was intrigued -- this seemed a better way to understand the scientific method than, say, just a PowerPoint on that topic (like the one I mentioned finding on Slideshare, above).
Well, that's enough for now. I didn't touch on many other great starting places but I'll have to come back to those another day.