Science and Society in 20th Century America (S571)
The Rhode Island School of Design -- Fall 2002
Final Exam -- December 9, 2002 -- Blumberg

The purpose of this exam is to have you think about the entire semester's readings, discussions, and work, bringing together your thoughts in response to a question that addresses a broad theme relevant to the relationship between science and society in 20th century America. In response to one (1) of the following, write an essay that communicates your thoughts as clearly as possible, drawing on specific examples from the material we studied this semester. Know that none of the topics below was designed to solicit a particular "right" answer; your essay will be evaluated based on the quality, coherence and inspiration of your insights and arguments.

1. Science and Government

For much of the 20th century, natural science has inspired concerns about how a society (or a world) in possession of the powers that science has made possible should be governed. In H.G. Wells' 1914 novel, The World Set Free, we see a vision of a one-world government brought about by the consequences and realities of atomic weapons. At the start of Chapter 4 of the novel, "The New Phase," Wells writes:

"The task that lay before the Assembly of Brissago, viewed as we may view it now from the clarifying standpoint of things accomplished, was in its broad issues a simple one. Essentially it was to place social organisation upon the new footing that the swift, accelerated advance of human knowledge had rendered necessary. The council was gathered together with the haste of a salvage expedition, and it was confronted with wreckage; but the wreckage was irreparable wreckage, and the only possibilities of the case were either the relapse of mankind to the agricultural barbarism from which it had emerged so painfully or the acceptance of achieved science as the basis of a new social order. The old tendencies of human nature, suspicion, jealousy, particularism, and belligerency, were incompatible with the monstrous destructive power of the new appliances the inhuman logic of science had produced. The equilibrium could be restored only by civilisation destroying itself down to a level at which modern apparatus could no longer be produced, or by human nature adapting itself in its institutions to the new conditions. It was for the latter alternative that the assembly existed."

Clearly (or pretty clearly) no such Assembly emerged after World War II, but perhaps we have seen something of a transformed "social order" and an "adaptation" of human nature in light of the realities of nuclear energy. Similarly, perhaps elements of Wells' vision will prove true once the "accelerated advance of knowledge" brought about by the Human Genome Project becomes clearer. In a brief essay, discuss whether you believe some/any of the claims and predictions captured in the Wells passage have and haven't proved -- or will and won't prove -- true.

2. Big Science and (Scientific) Knowledge

The term "big science" was introduced by historians of science to characterize the transformation in the physical sciences that occurred during/after World War II. Big Science (as opposed to the sort of laboratory science that characterized atomic and nuclear physics between 1895 and 1939) is distinguished by, among other things, large teams of researchers, multi-laboratory facilities, large-scale sophisticated equipment, large-scale public funding, and a large supporting team of engineers, technicians, managers, accountants, custodians etc., in addition to scientists from various disciplines. The Manhattan Project is perhaps the premiere example of Big Science in this sense, and the Human Genome Project is often considered an heir to that Big Science tradition.

In the Office of Technology Assessment's 1988 book, Mapping Our Genes-Genome Projects: How Big? How Fast?, however, a deliberate and rather emphatic effort is made to distinguish the Human Genome Project from such a tradition. In a section of the first chapter, titled "Misplaced Controversy About 'The Human Genome Project'" the following appears in boldface:

The Human Genome Project conjures up images of largescale projects such as the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb, the Apollo Project for a manned Moon landing, the space station, or the superconducting supercollider. Genome projects do not belong in this category. (from Mapping Our Genes-Genome Projects: How Big? How Fast?, OTA 1988, p. 10)

In class last Wednesday we discussed some of the differences between the Mahattan Project and the Human Genome Project, both in the scientific/technical sense and the social/legal/ethical sense. In a brief essay, discuss the ways you consider the two Projects to be similar (despite their obvious differences). Your essay will make clear the sense(s) in which you agree and disagree with the claim of the quotation from the OTA study.

3. Science, Belief, Values and Institutions

Toward the end of his 1923 paper, "Daedalus, or Science and the Future," J.B.S. Haldane wrote:

To sum up, then, science is as yet in its infancy, and we can foretell little of the future save that the thing that has not been is the thing that shall be; that no beliefs, no values, no institutions are safe. ... The future will be no primrose path. It will have its own problems. Some will be the secular problems of the past, giant flowers of evil blossoming at last to their own destruction. Others will be wholly new.

In a brief essay, discuss the ways that the Manhattan Project and the Human Genome Project have confirmed (or may yet confirm) Haldane's prediction about beliefs, values and institutions. Clearly distinguish the problems associated with these Projects you consider "problems of the past" and those you consider "wholly new".

Back to the S571 Syllabus

© 2002 Roger B. Blumberg