Freshman Seminar 27j - Prediction: From Ancient Omens to Modern Computer Simulations





Part of what makes us human is our desire to learn our own future.  Throughout recorded history, people have sought ever-more-powerful methods of Prediction.  In ancient times, sheep were sacrificed and priests read signs from the gods in their entrails; revered oracles were consulted; and astrologers read the future in the heavens.   Great scholars began to debate determinism vs. free will–is there a pre-ordained future, or do our own actions affect the future?–and that debate has never really ended.   Today’s arguments over whether human activty or “nature” is responsible for global climate change are still effectively a battle of free will vs. determinism–but our methods for settling the argument have expanded beyond what was available to ancient philosophers.

In both the online HarvardX course called “PredictionX,” and in the “Prediction” Freshman Seminar at Harvard, we trace and analyze the history of Prediction over time.   We begin with Omens, Oracles, Religion & Prophecy, and then,  move on to the so-called Scientific Revolution, exemplified by the work of Galileo, and the Age of Exploration, enabled by John Harrison’s solution to finding longitude at sea. The second half of the courses focuses on predictive work in epidemiology, finance, and climate, and ultimately on work about the Universe’s future. At the end of the courses, we consider and discuss how computer models of health/wealth/climate combine to predict our future. This WordPress site, established in January 2015,  holds student contributions in response to assignments given in the  “Prediction” Freshman Seminar at Harvard, the full name of which is “Harvard Freshman Seminar 27j: Prediction: From Ancient Omens to Modern Computer Simulations, the syllabus for which can be found at the course web site.