Lectures / Announcements:

May 12: Lewis and Clark: The Opening of the American West

Class Notes:

Mandatory reading: Lewis and Clark. Excerpts from the book Undaunted Courage, by Stephen Ambrose.

Quiz: There may be a quiz about the reading that was assigned last week (The Double Helix)

More resources:

Crash course in early American history (optional):

The story of the American Revolution and the formation of the United States of America is a fascinating and crucially important chapter in modern history. The following books are all brilliant, written by authors who are both top notch historians and wonderful writers.

May 5: Watson and Crick: Discovering Life's Algorithm

Class Notes:

Mandatory reading: The Double Helix (excerpts) , by James Watson. A scattered collection of texts from Watson's hilarious personal account of his role in making the most stunning scientific discovery of the 20th century.

Quiz: There may be a quiz about the reading that was assigned last week (A selection of texts about Evolution).

More resources:

  • Animation showing protein assembly. Not a bad animation, except for one annoying bug: from minute 2:10 onward, we see how the protein is built from amino acids. For some crazy reason, the animation uses the same color to represent all the amino acids, giving the impression that the protein is made from many instances of the same amino acid. In fact, the protein is made from a varying sequence amino acids -- that's the whole point of the RNA coding scheme!

  • DNA Replication: This video describes the "choreography" of DNA replication. The video is about 17 minutes long, but the instructor is so clear and engaging that you don't feel how the times passes. There is no need to follow or remember the details – just focus on the spirit of things. Notice that much of the complexity arises because one DNA strand in replicated in a "normal" direction, whereas the other (complimentary) strand is replicated in reverse direction (DNA has two sides, one is called the '3 side and the other the '5 side). These details are not important for our course, but they are quite fascinating nonetheless.

Optional reading / resources:

  • The Double Helix, by James Watson: A startling window into the scientific method, packed with the kind of science anecdotes that are told and retold in the halls of universities and laboratories everywhere. A highly personal account of the great discovery – a unique combination of useful information and juicy gossip, packed in a small and compact book.

  • The Double Helix book review, by Shimon Schocken, published in Haaretz, 2003 (Hebrew). Here is the complete text.

  • The story behind the preface that Lawrence Bragg wrote to the Double Helix. It's quite a juicy story, since, in the book, Watson mocked Bragg (among many others).

  • What is Life, by Erwin Schrödinger: One of the great science classics of the twentieth century. Although it was written for the layman, it proved to be one of the spurs to the birth of molecular biology and the subsequent discovery of DNA. Had a profound impact on James Watson, and many other pioneering life scientists.

  • Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, by Brenda Maddox: A moving biography of the brilliant and talented scientist who was the unsung hero of the DNA discovery. Jewish, female, and opinionated, her career was an uphill battle. Yet today she is considered the founding mother of modern molecular biology.

  • DNA, by James Watson: A panoramic overview of the major discoveries in life science made in the 50 years following the discovery of the DNA in 1954. This highly readable book features numerous excellent diagrams and photographs, as well as "behind the scene" stories about the scientists and the discoveries.

  • What Mad Pursuit, by Frances Crick: Another personal account of The Discovery. Full of wit and passion.

  • The Billion-Dollar Molecule: The Quest for the Perfect Drug, by Barry Werth: The true story behind the drama of a startup pharmaceutical company that developed a molecular drug to combat AIDS. A page turner.

  • A Life Decoded: My Genome: My Life, by Craig Venter. In the year 2000, Celera, a company founded by Venter, won the race to sequence of the Human Genome (beating a team led by James Watson). Venter was a failing ADHD student who, through hard work and sheer bravado, became one of the world's a leading life scientists and entrepreneurs. A fascinating autobiography.

April 28: Charles Darwin: The Voyage that Launched the Modern World

Class Notes:

Mandatory reading: A selection of texts about Evolution taken from the book "The Beak of the Finch" by Jonathan Weiner. The book tells the story of Rosemary and Peter Grant, a couple of life scientists from Princeton, whose 1980 study of the Galapagos Islands revealed that evolution progresses in a much faster pace than previously thought. The text also contains an excellent and passionate introduction to the theory of Evolution and Darwin's legacy.

Quiz: There may be a quiz about the reading that was assigned last week (Magellan).

More resources:

  • How the Human eye was shaped by evolution: An informal and compelling account. I include it here as an example of how such a fantastically complex instrument could be designed by the blind process of natural selection. Good vision implies a better chance to survive -- everything else is "details".

  • How the Cuckoo bird knows to lay eggs that look different in different host nests (55:15 to 1:05:20): Told by today's greatest evolution scholar, Richard Dawkins.

  • The tension between science and religion and the "God of the Gaps" approach to belief are discussed in this conversation between astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and author Neil Gaiman. Note that were the closed caption says "religious tax" they actually mean "religious texts".

  • Graduation Speech, Steve Jobs: As a student, Darwin took many "wild" courses from different disciplines. This famous speech conveys (among other things) an important lesson about the virtues of serendipitous, multi-disciplinary education.

Optional reading / resources:

A debate between Islam and Science: Worth watching, but don't hesitate to fast-forward here and there. Physicist Lawrence Krauss demolishes various religious arguments, but does it in the arrogant and patronising way that gave Atheism a bad reputation.

A selection of texts about Darwin's life and career, taken from the next reference listed below.

Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 1 - Voyaging, by Janet Browne. Many biographies were written about Darwin, and this is probably the best one.

Charles Darwin: A Biography, Vol. 2 - The Power of Place: Second volume of the Janet Browne biography, focusing on Darwin's post-voyage life and career.

Voyage of the Beagle: Darwin's own account of the great voyage around the world.

Last Chance to See: If you read one book by Douglas Adams (author of the The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), you want to read them all. This book is about travelling around the world and visiting various fish and birds that are about to go extinct.

Longitude: by Dava Sobel. The story of a lone watchmaker genius who solved the greatest scientific problem of his time: Finding one's longitude anyplace on earth (there is also an album-style illustrated version of the same book). A must reading for navigation and seafaring aficionados.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World, by Andrea Wolf. Alexander Humboldt was the greatest nature explorer and scholar that operated before Darwin. More cities, roads and rivers are named after him than any other person that ever lived. A sweeping biography of this forgotten German scientist, who was the first European who explored Venezuela, Ecuador, and other parts of northern Latin America. An excellent Hebrew translation is also available.

April 21: Magellan and the Age of Exploration


Mandatory reading: Magellan.

Quiz: There may be a quiz about the reading that was assigned last week (Shackleton).

Optional reading:

More resources:

April 7: Shackelton and the Endurance

We will talk about Shackleton, and the audacious rescue operation that he led.

Class Notes:

Mandatory reading (which you are expected to read after the lecture):

Optional reading:

  • Endurance, by Alfred Lansing: the story of Shackleton's rescue. See the readers rating in Amazon...

  • Worst Egg Hunt Ever, This article describes The Worst Journey in the World, a classic book written by Espley Cherry-Garrard, a junior member of the Scott team. The text is available freely in the Guttenberg project. You may want to skim through the pages and see the captivating figures, maps, and photographs.

There may be a quiz about the mandatory reading assigned on March 17.

March 17: Racing to the South Pole

This week we'll join two great explorers on a desperate race to reach first to the South Pole.

Class Notes:

Mandatory reading:

  • Amundsen and Scott: This text is taken from "The Last Place on Earth", by Roland Huntford.

Optional reading:

There may be a quiz about the reading that was assigned last week (First Attempt to the South Pole).

March 10, 2021: Polar Explorations

In this first class we'll give a course overview and discuss polar survival skills. This knowledge will come handy if you'll ever have to spend a few months around the North or South poles. In particular, we'll set the stage for the next two lectures, in which we'll join the fantastic adventures of four legendary explorers: Nansen, Scott, Amundsen, and Shackleton.

Class Notes:

Mandatory reading (which you have to read after this lecture, and before the March 17 lecture):

  • (Start by going over the reading guidelines)

  • First Attempt to the South Pole: this text is taken from the book "Shackleton" by Roland Huntford. The first section in the text describes some general details about diet and dogs in polar explorations. The rest of the text describes an early attempt to reach the south pole, in 1902. The team included Scott (leader), Shackleton (a young ambitious explorer who will be the subject of a later lecture in this course), and Wilson, a highly competent polar explorer. The text illustrates the problematic character and leadership style of Scott, and describes the unique British approach to polar exploration.

Further / optional reading:

  • Farthest North (by Fridjtof Nansen): written by the pioneer of modern polar exploration, this book describes an early epic attempt to reach the North Pole.

  • Kabloona (by Gontran de Poncins): the author spent several years among the Inuit (Eskimo) people of the Arctic, and wrote an empathic rendition of the Inuit lifestyle, courage and stamina. This is a rare book, available only from used book sellers. However, it is a gem. If you buy it, try to purchase the hardcover version, which includes beautiful water color paintings by the author.

  • The Last Gentleman Adventurer (by Edward Beauclerk Maurice): if you read one book about life with the Inuit people, this is it. A funny and heart breaking memoire written by an Englishman who, at age 16, was sent to man a trading post in one of the most remote places on the globe. This book is also available in Hebrew.

Welcome to Great Explorers, 2021!

This general elective course is open to IDC students from all schools, programs, and years. The language of instruction is English. The course meets on Wednesdays, 15:45 - 17:15. First meeting is on March 10, 2021.

Here is the course syllabus and the zoom link to all the lectures: https://idc-il.zoom.us/j/83581467973

Attendance checking in this course is done using the EZCheck.me app, which you should download an put on your cell phone (attending 80% of the lectures on schedule gives a 1-point bonus on the course final grade).