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Welcome to Law School, Part III

WTLS, Part II was about getting scientists and engineers into a “deep reading” mode. Today, WTLS Part III is about getting you humanists (historians, arts and literature types, philosophers, musicians, and even some of you social scientists) into science and engineering.

Neither law nor law school usually expect much in terms of genuine scientific or technical knowledge; none of your first-year professors is likely to ask you to remember the Pythagorean theorem, much less Avogadro’s number. (In some upper-level classes and the legal disciplines that they describe, a scientific education is at least helpful and may be on its way to becoming indispensable — evidence law, environmental law, and patent law among them.) Why, then, should a well-read literary soul bother to brush up on science before starting to study law?

At their best, science and engineering represent ways of examining the world and building conceptual systems for understanding it. It’s the rigor of these systems that I think you should be interested in, because part of the law (only a part, but an important part) is about understanding law as a whole, and understanding particular disciplines of the law, as well-ordered systems.

A couple of caveats: I’m not suggesting that law is a science. Law schools and lawyers went through that phase more than a century ago, and we know that it isn’t. And I’m not disparaging the systemic and order-building dimensions of music and philosophy, for example (I don’t mind disparaging the claims of comprehensiveness and orderliness of certain brands of economics and political science, at least a little bit — when they claim to have more insight about human behavior than they really do or can have.)

Science, however, is a way of taking pieces of found information in the world and using those pieces to build theories about the world. As a lawyer, you’ll need to learn how to do something similar: take pieces of found information about the (legal) world, such as the series of appellate cases that you’ll encounter in your casebooks, and learn to recognize how to use those pieces to build systems, known as legal concepts or theories — such as the first-year courses we call “Contracts,” “Torts,” and “Civil Procedure.”

Today’s tip, then, is this: Find and read a good book about science or engineering. If you want to dip your toes in this water, Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is a good start. Histories of science are often a good way to access scientific knowledge without suffering through all of its intricacies; Peter Galison’s Einstein’s Clocks, Poincare’s Maps: Empires of Time is an excellent recent example. For philosophers, try the classic (if still controversial) Structure of Scientific Revolutions by Thomas Kuhn. If computing technology is your thing, take a look at Paul Ceruzzi’s History of Modern Computing.

For bigger challenges or more rigor or both, try Stephen Hawking’s Brief History of Time, or Roger Penrose’s Emperor’s New Mind. If you’re a musician, you might enjoy literate but dense explorations of technical themes in Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid or Richard Powers’s Goldbug Variations. When I went looking for a book that would teach me how computers really worked, I found Charles Petzold’s Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software, which repays your reading effort many times over.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part I.

Link to Welcome to Law School, Part II.

5 thoughts on “Welcome to Law School, Part III”

  1. Thank you for the advice–I’ll be checking back for more installments. I’m very interested to hear what a law professor thinks I need to know/do before arriving there the first day. Thanks for your insight.

  2. A few other good science books would be The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene, To Engineer is Human by Henry Petroski, and Invention by Design by Henry Petroski. Petroski tends to focus more from a civil engineering perspective, and Brian Greene’s book deals mostly with physics/string theory.

  3. Thanks for the recommendation for musicians to read Hofstader’s GEB… but I think anyone interested in formal systems, incompleteness, and just fun reading should also read the book! I originally picked it up because I’m a computer science type that heard about it from a prof. But I’m also a musician, so I was excited to be reading about Bach… Thanks again for all the advice!

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