ENGINEERING ARMAGEDDON: VISIONS OF SCIENTIFIC APOCALYPSE

“History! Read it and weep!”
 — Kurt Vonnegut

 

COURSE DESCRIPTION                                                                                     

Since the Industrial Revolution, periods of ambivalence about science and technology have marked Western cultural expression. Science has simultaneously offered the prospect of progress and the specter of chaos. Faced with this tension, cultural critics of science and technology have often employed apocalyptic imagery, invoking the human capacity for self ruin to articulate the power scientific knowledge represents, to highlight its potential danger, and to explore its limits. Scientists have also wrestled with the gulf between the noble pursuit of knowledge and the ignoble ways in which that knowledge is sometimes applied. This course explores the history of this anxiety by examining visions of scientific apocalypse in popular and literature, film, and visual art alongside responses from those deeply invested in science and technology.

The course proceeds chronologically through nineteenth-century Romanticism, fin-de-siècle agitation, Cold War fear, and twenty-first-century techno-futurism. Through novels, plays, stories, poems, paintings, photographs, films, and scientists’ writings, students will engage with major questions that have mediated the relationship between science, technology, and society: How and why do popular and professional conceptions of scientific responsibility and authority differ? What ethical considerations should guide scientific and technological progress? Where is the boundary between the artificial and the natural and how should we negotiate it? Who should mediate the advance and dissemination of scientific knowledge? The course will ask how responses to these questions have appeared within specific scientific and cultural contexts. At the same time, the course material will reveal a legacy of cultural criticism that continues to influence modern responses to science and technology.

 

GOALS AND OUTCOMES                                                                                 

What I hope to do in this course:

• Familiarize students with a variety of perspectives about the roles, responsibilities, limits, and authority of science as a social and cultural institution
• Explore how science functions in historical and cultural contexts
• Sharpen students’ critical thinking and writing skills

What you should be able to do by the end of the course:

• Reconstruct key perspectives on the role of science in Western culture
• Apply an understanding of those perspectives to contemporary and historical issues
• Analyze the relationship between science and society

 

ESSENTIAL RESOURCES                                                                                     

Books

• Atwood, Margaret, Oryx and Crake
• Dick, Philip K., Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?
• Vonnegut, Kurt, Cat’s Cradle

Electronic Resources

• Shelley, Mary, Frankenstein
• Wells, H. G., The World Set Free
• Čapek, Karel., R.U.R.
• Required and supplementary readings for each week

 

ASSIGNMENTS AND GRADES                                                                             

30%  -  Participation and Attendance                         
20%  -  Weekly Reflections
5%    -  Paper 1
10%  -  Paper 2
15%  -  Paper 3
20%  - Final Paper

Participation and Attendance

The 30% of your grade constituted by participation and attendance will be based on your attendance in class, and on active, conscientious involvement in discussions and activities therein. You should come to class with a copy of that week’s reading, prepared to discuss it. Your in-class contributions will be assessed based on whether they demonstrate critical engagement with the material. As a courtesy to your classmates, please turn cell phones off before the beginning of class.

Weekly Reflections

Throughout the term you will complete small assignments that ask you to critically engage the course material for that week. The reflection assignments will vary in format, but might include responses to specific questions about specific readings, free-form reaction pieces, or informal presentations. They will be collected or conducted in class on Wednesdays. Make-up assignments will not be offered unless arranged in advance.

Papers                                                                                                                                    

For this course, you will complete three analysis papers of no more than 1500 words and a final paper of no more than 3000 words. Due dates are listed below. The analysis papers ask you to respond to a specific prompt, whereas the final paper offers you greater latitude to select a topic. See the Assignment Guidelines handout for further information.

Extra Credit

Exactly one opportunity is available for extra credit during the term. You may attend a scholarly lecture on campus and produce a 500-word reaction to the lecture. You should make every effort to produce a reaction relevant to the course themes. For successful completion of this assignment, you can earn no more than 2% extra credit. Submissions will be evaluated according to the same criteria as other written work in the course.

 

COURSE SCHEDULE                                                                                        

Week 1: Introduction/Nature in Enlightenment and Romanticist Thought
Fleming – “Stories of Control”
Brin – “A Note on the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and Science Fiction”

Week 2: Monsters and Monstrosity
Shelley – Frankenstein

Week 3: Shelley’s Scientific Context
Finger & Law – “Karl August Weinhold and his ‘Science’ in the Era of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Darwin (Erasmus) – “Of Fibrous Contractions” (Excerpt from Zoonomia, 1794)

Week 4: Apocalyptic Optimism
Wells – The World Set Free

Week 5: Radioactivity and Scientific Responsibility
Soddy – The Interpretation of Radium (Chapters I-III, XI)
Davies – “Frederick Soddy: The Scientist as Prophet”
McCray – “When Space Travel and Nanotechnology Met at the Fountains of Paradise” 

Week 6: Technological Enslavement
Čapek – R. U. R. 

Week 7: Interwar Pessimism, Scientific Innocence
Slotten – “Humane Chemistry or Scientific Barbarism?”
Hughes – “The Second Discovery of America”

Week 8: Nuclear Fear
Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
Bradbury – “There Will Come Soft Rains”

Week 9: Nuclear Science, Nuclear Politics, Nuclear Culture
Langmuir – “Speech at the Nobel Banquet in Stockholm”
Franck, et al. – “The Franck Report”
Weart – Nuclear Fear (excerpts)
Movie: Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

Week 10: Technology and Humanity
Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Week 11: Apocalypse and Environment
Carson – Silent Spring (excerpts)
Veldman – “Narrating the Environmental Apocalypse”
Oreskes and Conway – “The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future”

Week 12: Biotech Takes Charge
Atwood – Oryx and Crake

Week 13: Taking Charge of Biotech
Berg, et al. – “Summary Statement of the Asilomar Conference on Recombinant DNA Molecules”
Maienschein – “Recombinant DNA, IVF, & Abortion Politics”
Movie:12 Monkeys

Week 14: Scientists’ Views of Scientific Values
Rowland – “The Highest Aim of the Physicist”
American Chemical Society – “The Chemical Professional’s Code of Conduct”
Norton – “What Is a Conservation Biologist?”