Key thinkers on the natural sciences

Key thinkers on the natural sciences


Adding authority to your TOK essay and presentation

The knowledge questions in your and TOK presentation should be supported not only by your own ideas and evidence, but also by those of other people. We have therefore put together a list of key thinkers for each way of knowing and area of knowledge who will add extra authority to your TOK essay and presentation, and help you to explore the KQs connected to your title. You can see the complete list of key thinkers here.

Beautiful minds

But we’re thinking of more than just the TOK assessment: these minds are the source of some of the most incredible ideas ever put forward, and have shaped the way we view the world and our place in it. So we think they are worth getting to know in their own right, because they will genuinely help you to figure out this mysterious thing called existence.

Making use of these thinkers

We have indicated which elements of the course they are particularly useful for (remember you should be trying to link the different parts of TOK, so don’t just focus on one WOK or AOK in isolation), and we have provided a Wikipedia link for each person. However, you should see this as the point where you begin, rather than end, your exploration of these paradigm-defining figures. We’ve also identified one person for each way of knowing and area of knowledge whom we consider an ESSENTIAL THINKER, due to way they challenge assumptions or provide a particularly important idea. Each of these thinkers are accompanied by a video in which they outline their theories, and which you can quote as a source for your essay or presentation.
TNK = the nature of knowledge
SP = sense perception
HS = the human sciences
IKS = indigenous knowledge systems
NS = the natural sciences
RKS = religious knowledge systems

Aristarchos (310 BC – 230 BC)

Aristarchos was the first thinker to propose the heliocentric theory of astronomy, suggesting that the earth, rather than the sun, was the centre of the solar system. He was also responsible for placing the planets in their correct order. Aristarchos’s ideas were generally rejected in favour of those of Aristotle and Ptolemy, who both favoured the geocentric theory. It took over 1800 years for his ideas to be confirmed, (largely because of the resistance of secular and religious authorities, who were reluctant to see the earth demoted in importance in the universe) first by the observations of Copernicus, then by the work of Kepler and Newton.
Also helps us to explore TNK

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC)

Together with Plato and Socrates (Plato’s teacher), Aristotle is one of the most important founding figures in Western philosophy. Aristotle’s writings were the first to create a comprehensive system of Western philosophy, encompassing morality and aesthetics, logic and science, politics and metaphysics.
Also helps us to explore TNK

Copernicus, Nicolaus (1473 – 1543)

Copernicus was the first person to present a complete version of the heliocentric theory of the universe, removing the earth from the centre of the cosmos. This idea is often cited as the best example of a paradigm shift in scientific thinking.
Also helps us to explore TNK

Darwin, Charles (1809 – 1882)

Darwin was a British geologist and naturalist, and possessor of one of the greatest minds in history. His theory of evolution is one of the most important bases of scientific knowledge, but he is also interesting for the strong faith he held early in his life, which he was forced to question due to his discoveries.
Also helps us to explore Faith, reason, RKS

Dawkins, Richard (1941 – )

Dawkins is probably the most famous biologist in the world, best known for his book The Selfish Gene. He has staunch opinions on superstition and religion, which he believes are actively harmful to society. He argues that one’s approach to life should be based on the scientific method.
Also helps us to explore Faith, reason, RKS

Einstein, Albert (1879 – 1955)

Probably the best known scientist of the last 300 years, Einstein’s name has become synonymous with genius and creativity. His personal advice to the US government in 1939 led them to become the only country during the war to possess nuclear weapons. He believed in the power of imagination in helping to acquire knowledge.
Also helps us to explore TNK, imagination, reason, RKS

ESSENTIAL THINKER Firestein, Stuart (1949 – )

Firestein is a neuroscientist as Columbia University in New York. He runs a laboratory, and teaches various course, one of which is devoted to the way in which ignorance is an integral element of scientific advancement.

Also helps us to explore Reason

Galilei, Galileo (1564 – 1642)

Along with Descartes and Newton, Galileo helped to get the scientific revolution underway, in particular with his emphasis on empirical observation of experiments as a way of ascertaining their results. He also developed Copernicus’s heliocentric theory.
Also helps us to explore Reason

Goldacre, Ben (1974 – )

Goldacre is a British doctor and science journalist, and author of the best selling Bad Science book. He writes a regular column attacking the way both the press and by the profit-making elements of the scientific community approach and present science.
Also helps us to explore Reason

Harris, Judith (1938 – )

Author of the ‘The Nurture Assumption’, Harris questions the importance of parents in the forming of a person’s character. She says that environment does play an important part in determining someone’s personality, but the effect of a child’s peers is much stronger than the effect of his or her parents. This is important as a source for the nature versus nurture debate in the human sciences.
Also helps us to explore HS

Harris, Sam (1967 – )

Harris is a philosopher, neuroscientists, and writer who is an advocate of skepticism, and who believes that morality needs a solid foundation. This, he proposes, should be based on truths that can only be empirically proven, established by a method akin to those found in natural sciences.
Also helps us to explore Faith, reason, ethics, HS, RKS

Hawking, Stephen (1942 – )

Hawking is a Cambridge cosmologist and theoretical physicist. His book A Brief History of Time has sold more copies than any other science book ever written. One key question associated with his ideas is whether they provide us with the complete picture when considering the origins of the universe.
Also helps us to explore RKS

Kuhn, Thomas (1922 – 1996)

Kuhn was an American physicist who wrote extensively on the philosophy of science. According to him, scientific knowledge progresses in a violent and revolutionary way, rather than in a linear and passively accumulative fashion. He coined the term ‘paradigm shifts’ for the way in which our knowledge advances.

Levi, Primo (1919 – 1987)

Levi was an Italian chemist, writer, and concentration camp survivor. He wrote widely on the abuse of power by fascist leaders, on the nature of humanity, and tried to bridge the gap between natural sciences and the arts. Tragically, he killed himself in 1987.
Also helps us to explore Memory, arts, ethics, history

Newton, Isaac (1643 – 1727)

Newton was so many things – a physicist, a mathematician, an astronomer, a theologian, and even a alchemist. He is considered to be one of the most influential people in history, alongside figures such as Plato, Kant, Descartes, and Darwin. In the early part of his career, at least, , saying ‘if I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.
Also helps us to explore Imagination, mathematics

Pasteur, Louis (1822 – 1895)

Pasteur was a French chemist and micro-biologist. For the purposes of TOK, he is of interest for what he said about the role of serendipity in scientific discoveries. According to him, it is only the prepared mind that benefits from it.
Also helps us to explore TNK, imagination

Planck, Max (1858 – 1947)

Planck, a German physicist, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1918. His views on the progression of ideas in the natural sciences can be seen as a forerunner to the paradigm shift idea, and are summed up by his statement: ‘A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it’.

Popper, Karl (1902 – 1994)

Popper, an Austro-British academic, wrote on just about every subject there is. His philosophy of science is particularly relevant, and one of his central ideas is that our knowledge of reality is severely limited, and for a theory to be truly scientific, it should be possible to empirically falsify it.
Also helps us to explore TNK, ethics

Russell, Bertrand (1872 – 1970)

Russell is one of the towering figures of 20th century thought, and wrote on subjects as diverse as mathematics and the morality of nuclear weapons. His thoughts scatter the TOK course, beginning with the nature of knowledge, and the definition of truth.
Also helps us to explore TNK, reason, ethics, mathematics, RKS

Sagan, Carl (1934 – 1996)

Sagan was an American astronomer and astrophysicist who was one of the most prolific science writers of the last 50 years. His thoughts on the nature of science help provide a definition for what the natural sciences are.

Shermer, Michael (1954 – )

Founder of Skeptic magazine, Shermer spends his life debunking myths, exposing frauds, and highlighting fallacies. His key assertion is that before you draw on a supernatural cause for something, you first have to explore all the potential natural causes.
Also helps us to explore Reason, HS, RKS

Skinner, BF (1904 – 1990)

Skinner was many things, among them, a philosopher, psychologist, author, and inventor. His experiment on pigeons, in which he observed them behaving ‘superstitiously’, suggest that such a tendency is not limited to human beings.
Also helps us to explore Intuition, reason, HS,

Wittgenstein, Ludwig (1889 – 1951)

Wittgenstein was an Austrian philosopher of mathematics, language, and the mind. He believed that philosophical problems were generally associated with language, stating that: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Also helps us to explore TNK, language, reason, HS, mathematics

Cite this page as: Dunn, Michael. Key thinkers on the natural sciences (3rd December 2013). Last accessed: 19th March 2018


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