Welcome to the Frontiers of Science: Scientific Habits of Mind Multimedia Study Environment. This text is intended to assist students in coming away from the Frontiers of Science course with an understanding of the fundamental habits of scientific thinking. It provides concepts and examples of the common scientific abilities we hope to foster in all Columbia graduates.

This Web site and its contents are created for educational use by Columbia University students and faculty. Please see “Site Access” for more information on access levels to the Frontiers of Science: Scientific Habits of Mind.

The text is divided into several chapters:

Chapter 1: A Sense of Scale (Self test, PDF document)

Chapter 2: Discoveries on the Back of an Envelope (Self test, PDF document)

Chapter 3: Insights in Lines and Dots (Self test, PDF document)

Chapter 4: Expecting the Improbable

Chapter 5: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

Chapter 6: Correlation, Causation...Confusion and Clarity

Chapter 7: What is Science?

See “Help Documentation” for more explanation of the interface and features of the site’s design. You may click “Enter Site” button at any time to enter the Study Environment.


The Columbia College Core Curriculum is a constantly changing enterprise buttressed by an unchanging philosophy: Engaging the entire class in a serious intellectual discourse on the great ideas of Western Civilization provides a strong foundation for a lifetime of education. During its first eighty-five years, the Core ideas included literature, music, art, history, and philosophy. Beginning in the University's 250th year, we are now including a new and unique contribution of Western Civilization heretofore neglected: science.

Frontiers of Science is designed to introduce you to research on the forefront of science today, as well as to inculcate some of the Scientific Habits of Mind that brought us to where we are, and will lead us, and you, into the future. This “book” is designed as a passport to those Habits of Mind. It is most likely dissimilar from science books you have seen in high school. It contains no bold-faced words to memorize, and no recipes for scientific discovery. It does not pretend to be comprehensive and is not tied to any particular subject matter. Some of the ideas it describes will already be very familiar; some, I hope, will be new. It includes personal anecdotes from one particular (perhaps, peculiar) scientist that illustrate how one can apply these habits to both the ordinary and extraordinary experiences of life in order to gain a more rational, and a richer, perspective on the world.

This book was written from the start to be a web-book and is most valuable when used in that way. We recognize that Columbia first-year students come to campus with a wide variety of backgrounds in, and predilections for, science. Scientific Habits of Mind has been designed to address the full range of student interests and competencies. The book is suffused with links: “HUH?” links provide tutorials on concepts that may have slipped through the cracks of your education (or your mind). “WHY?” links provide more advanced material that enrich the presentations of basic concepts in scientific reasoning. Additional links provide important supplementary examples and historical and cultural context. Thus, even if you prefer to read from the paper version, I strongly encourage you to consult some of the links from time to time.

The lectures and seminars in this course will serve to illustrate the Habits described herein. They will represent data graphically, use probabilistic and statistical reasoning, discuss correlations, estimate things, and give you a sense of the scale of space and time. This book, then, should be viewed both as an introduction to the skills you will need to develop, and as a reference when reviewing lectures or confronting a seminar assignment. Your feedback on its utility, content, and style will be greatly appreciated—both by the author and by those classes that will succeed you.