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Department of History and Philosophy of Science


Part IB History and Philosophy of Science offers a wide-ranging overview of the nature of science and its place in society.

The course explores the historical, philosophical and social dimensions of the sciences, the ways in which the sciences are shaped by other aspects of social and economic life, and the roles of scientists in public debate.

Examples are drawn from many different disciplines, over a period extending from the Renaissance to the present day: from early astronomy, alchemy and natural philosophy, to the atomic bomb, the discovery of DNA and climate change. We examine questions about how theories are tested and change, and about the nature of causation, laws and scientific explanation. The course also considers whether or not science provides an increasingly accurate account of a largely unobservable world.

Lectures are given on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 5pm, starting on Friday 11 October 2024.

Part IB timetable

No previous experience in history or philosophy is expected; the lectures and basic reading provide the necessary background. Essay writing is an important feature of the course, analogous to laboratory practical classes in experimental sciences. If you have not written a connected piece of prose in a long time, don't worry: almost no one who takes this course has. Learning to structure arguments clearly and effectively is an important part of what the course is about. Supervisors are ready to give advice on techniques for effective composition.

In addition to encouraging a broad perspective on the sciences, the course thus develops skills of writing, reading and critical thinking. These skills are essential if you are to make effective use of your other options and are highly valued by employers.

Programme specification for HPS Part IB


There are two examination papers: History of Science (HPS1) and Philosophy of Science (HPS2).

Natural Sciences Tripos students take both papers.

Students taking Part IIA of the Human, Social and Political Sciences Tripos (HSPS) or Part IB of the Psychological and Behavioural Sciences Tripos (PBS) can choose only one of these papers.


To get an idea of what HPS is like, and in preparation for it, you are encouraged to read a selection of books during the Long Vacation. You will find introductory readings on the Part IB timetable.

Student workload

Students are expected to attend lectures and supervisions and pursue appropriate amounts of private study and preparation work for their papers and project work both during term and in the Christmas and Easter vacations. The Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) has calculated that the average amount of scheduled teaching in full-time History and Philosophy of Science subjects at the University of Cambridge is 11 hours and 12 minutes per week, with private study of approximately 33 hours and 18 minutes per week. Therefore the average amount of work expected per week by each student during term time is around 45 hours (900 hours in total during the course of the year). NST Part IB History and Philosophy of Science is one of three options for the year (33%). Students have 60 hours of formal teaching and 24 hours of supervision, leaving 216 hours for private study and preparation for supervisions specific to HPS (approximately 10 hours per week).

Further study

A more advanced, full-time course is available at Part II. Final-year students from any subject in the University, including those in the humanities and social sciences, are encouraged to apply. A meeting for prospective Part II students is held in March each year.


The HPS Part III course allows students to study HPS in even greater depth, and develop a variety of research and writing skills at an advanced level.