Taught at Colby College and Michigan State University (2013–2016)
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.
Taught at Michigan State University (2014)
We like to think that science is reliable. If it does not offer absolute truth about the natural world, then at least it provides a stable description of how we interact with it. Statistical reliability, however, cannot prevent wrong turns, blind alleys, fraud, and misconduct. This course examines what happens when science falls short of contemporary standards and how the problem of demarcating science from non-science, good science from bad, is negotiated in policy contexts. Standards of scientific practice have changed throughout history. Violating the norms of science is therefore not a transgression of absolute rules, but of community standards. Understanding how those community standards are established and policed is therefore essential to define the boundaries of science.
The first half of this course probes the boundaries of scientific legitimacy in historical contexts. With that historical foundation in place, the second half proceeds to more recent issues, and examines how similar boundary questions manifest themselves in today’s science and technology policy.
Taught at Michigan State University (2015)
“All science is either physics or stamp collecting.”
The quote above is often attributed (in error) to Ernest Rutherford, the physicist from New Zealand best known for demonstrating that most of an atom’s mass resides in a small, hard nucleus. The quote reflects an attitude that has been part of physics for a long time—the notion that it is the purist, the noblest, the most fundamental, the “queen of the sciences.” Today, we might smirk at such a sentiment; biology has become the most prestigious (and best-funded) science in the United States, and we now often consider physics—which the press often reports by discussing speculative research into string theory, the multiverse, and supersymmetry—to be weird and arcane, with little to do with how we live our daily lives. Historically, however, the sentiment that physics sits above all other scientific endeavors shaped how physicists searched out new knowledge, built their instruments, managed their institutions, and interacted with the societies that supported them.
This revolves around the theme of prestige. It probes how physicists in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries argued for the importance of their field. This includes examining the relationship between physics and technology, considering the nature of the knowledge physicists produced, considering physicists as celebrities and public figures, and probing the relationship between physics, politics, and society. You should finish the course with a more robust sense of physics both as a science and as a historical entity.
Taught at Colby College (2014) and Michigan State University (2014, 2015)
Science and technology play central roles in governing our lives and are accorded a correspondingly prominent place in civic discourse. Today, we grapple constantly with questions about how science and technology shape our society, such as how to manage information accessibility and transparency, chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons, expanding energy needs, and global-scale human impacts. This course shows how these questions and many others like them can be confronted through the multidisciplinary fields of History and Philosophy of Science (HPS) and Science, Technology and Society (STS).
These disciplines provide scholarly approaches to investigating the ways in which science and technology are embedded in social and cultural practices. We will examine the various techniques historians, philosophers, anthropologists, sociologists, and policy scholars have used to understand science and technology’s impact on our world and our lives. This course provides a foundation for further study in STS, and so along with specific topics in both contemporary and historical science and technology, we well confront larger questions of how different disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives motivate critical questions about science and technology.
Taught at the University of Cambridge (2017)
Ten conferences were held between 1946 and 1953 to investigate ‘Circular Causal, and Feedback Mechanisms in Biological and Social Systems’. The meetings, sponsored by Josiah Macy Jr., laid groundwork for the ambitious architecture of cybernetics. The complete transactions of the final five conferences constitute the foundational document to this epoch-making project. Cybernetics was supposed to establish a unified theory of thinking across the physical, life, and social sciences that took technological concepts such as ‘information’ and ‘feedback’ as a starting point. A hard-wired dedication to discussions across fields cemented a blueprint of interdisciplinary communication between mathematics, physics, biology, sociology, linguistics, computer science, psychoanalysis, and economics. The exclusive ranks of the participants shared the intention of developing a utopia for a forthcoming unity of knowledge, a universal theory of regulation and control. Cybernetic theory was to integrate economic as well as mental processes, encompass sociological as well as aesthetic phenomena, and apply to living beings as well as to machines. The transactions allow deep insights into this systematic enterprise of integrating concepts that had been hitherto kept far apart and illuminate the emergence of lasting conceptual frameworks such as our distinction between the analogue and the digital.