Science and Society in 20th Century America (S571)
The Rhode Island School of Design -- Fall 2000
Final Exam -- December 11, 2000 -- 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

Among the many predictions about science and society in the 20th Century to be found in H.G. Well's 1914 novel, The World Set Free, are several having to do with the fate of national and world government(s) in the light of scientific discoveries and developments. In the novel, even after the new source of radiant energy has been discovered, making possible abundant sources of clean energy, the elimination of hunger and poverty, as well as revolutionary transformations in the nature of everyday life, social problems not only continue but even seem to worsen. Rates of suicide and violent crime actually increase, and Wells' writes:

"The world was so little governed that with the very coming of plenty, in the full tide of an incalculable abundance, when everything necessary to satisfy human needs and everything necessary to realise such will and purpose as existed then in human hearts was already at hand, one has still to tell of hardship, famine, anger, confusion, conflict and incoherent suffering. There was no scheme for the distribution of this vast new wealth that had come at last within the reach of men; there was no clear conception that any such distribution was possible." The World Set Free (New York: Dutton, p. 57)

In a brief essay, and using the Manhattan Project and the Human Genome Project among your examples, discuss the relationship between science and government: what it has been in the 20th century, and what you think it should be in light of scientific developments like the control of nuclear energy and the sequencing of the human genome. In your discussion you might consider how the relationship and distinctions between science and government have been changed by 20th century science in the US, and how either science or government should be transformed in light of the demands and achievements of the other.

2. Science, Art and Truth

One of the characteristics of modern science, or at least the reputation of modern science, that has made it so intriguing as an object of study in the 20th century (whether by historians, philosophers, or sociologists), is science's ability to discover and create truths about the world. Science is certainly not alone among the disciplines in claiming a relationship to truth, but the study of science in the 20th century often focused on what distinguished science from other disciplines, as a way of knowing the world and as a method for discovering truth.

In January of 1918, Franz Kafka wrote in his notebook:

"Art flies around truth, but with the definite intention of not getting burnt. Its capacity lies in finding in the dark void a place where the beam of light can be intensely caught, without this having been perceptible before." (from The Blue Octavo Notebooks, edited by Max Brod, translated by Ernst Kaiser and Eithne Wilkins (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1991), p. 39.)

In a brief essay, and using examples from the semester's readings and discussions, discuss your ideas about science's relationship to truth, and how this relationship compares with that between art and truth (in Kafka's and in your own opinion).

3. Science and Change

In the introduction to his short essay, Icarus, or The Future of Science (1924), the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote:

"A science may affect human life in two different ways. On the one hand, without altering men's passions or their general outlook, it may increase their power of gratifying their desires. On the other hand, it may operate through an effect upon the imaginative conception of the world, the theology or philosophy which is accepted in practice by energetic men." (Icarus or The Future of Science, (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1924), p. 7)

Yes, in a brief essay, discuss the ways in which the mid- and late-20th century sciences of nuclear physics and molecular genetics, as represented in our studies of the Manhattan Project and the Human Genome Project, have and have not changed life in each of the two senses described by Russell.

Back to the S571 Syllabus

© 2000 Roger B. Blumberg