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Department of History and Philosophy of Science

Detail from Edward Sherburne, The sphere of Marcus Manilius made an English poem, 1675

The Part II course in History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) gives students an insight into the historical development of science, medicine and technology. It addresses questions about the nature of scientific knowledge, and critically examines the social authority given to scientific expertise. It thus provides essential intellectual resources for understanding some of the most important aspects of modern society and culture.

This is a full-time Part II course in the Natural Sciences Tripos. We also offer a Major Subject and three Minor Subjects as part of the NST Part II course in Biological and Biomedical Sciences, and single-paper options for the Classics, History, HSPS and PBS Triposes.


There are two alternative ways of designing your HPS Part II programme.

Option A consists of:

  • three unseen written examinations chosen from a broad range of papers;
  • a dissertation;
  • a primary source essay.

Option B consists of:

  • four unseen written examinations chosen from a broad range of papers;
  • a primary source essay.

Each examination paper counts for 20%, the primary source essay for 20% and the dissertation (in Option A) for 20% of the overall mark. This means that Option A is 40% coursework and Option B is 20% coursework.

The papers

Students choose from the following list of papers. Any combination of papers will provide a very broad exposure to the field of history and philosophy of science and medicine and will fully meet the course aims and objectives.

  • Paper 1: Early Science and Medicine
  • Paper 2: Sciences and Empires
  • Paper 3: Modern Medicine and Life Sciences
  • Paper 4: Philosophy and Scientific Practice
  • Paper 5: Epistemology and Metaphysics of Science
  • Paper 6: Ethics and Politics of Science, Technology and Medicine

Primary sources

All students write one extended essay (up to 5,000 words) focused on an assigned primary source. During Michaelmas Term there will be seven series of primary source seminars, each made up of four seminars. Students should attend two series of seminars. They then choose one source on which to write their essay.


This part of the course – which is only for students taking Option A – gives students the chance to explore in depth a topic that really interests them. The dissertation is a substantial piece of original work (up to 8,000 words). Students make short presentations on their dissertation work in dissertation seminars in Lent Term.

Supervisions and writing support

All papers are supported by supervisions; we recommend that students write 6–8 supervision essays per paper.

We provide optional tailored study skills sessions and one-to-one writing support for those who feel this may be of benefit.

Pass rates

Pass rates for HPS Part II are close to 100%, and every year a significant proportion of the students receive a first class degree.

Distribution of Part II marks

I have learnt valuable study skills, advanced my self-discipline and met some fascinating people.