Science and Society in 20th Century America

HPSS*S571, Fall 2002 -- MW 8:00 to 9:30 a.m.(!), MKT 203
The Rhode Island School of Design, Providence RI
Roger B. Blumberg -- Syllabus
See also the S571 Reference Page

Updated: 12/09/02

Briefly: This course examines and raises questions about the roles and representations of scientific knowledge and practice in the political/social/cultural history of the 20th century. We will focus on two significant "projects" with natural science at their core: The Manhattan Project, which aimed at and succeeded in producing a "practical military weapon" in the form of an atomic bomb; and, The Human Genome Project, the aims of which include the identification of all the 100,000 genes in human DNA, the determination of the sequences of the 3 billion chemical base pairs that make up human DNA, the development of technologies to analyze and store this information. In examining these examples of science in action we'll be interested in understanding not only the sciences that facilitate(d) these activities, but the relationships between individuals and institutions, between science, history and politics, that constituted these activities as well. We'll be especially interested in thinking and learning about these relationships by examining diverse representations of scientific theory and practice in contemporary literatures and arts. Attention will also be paid to considering the moral and political responsibility of the educated layman as well as the scientific expert, and the way different theories of social and political responsibility are inscribed in representations of scientific theory and practice.

Requirements:: The basis for our discussions in this course will be readings, and related writing assignments. Students are expected to read critically a variety of texts (philosophical, sociological and scientific) and to contribute to class discussions. In addition to short assignments, students will, before the Thanksgiving holiday, complete a 8-10 page essay that analyzes one or several representations of either nuclear or biological science (the representation may be drawn from the arts or the sciences), and there will be a final exam.

Why This Course?: College and university courses dealing with science generally fall into rather distinct and exclusive disciplinary categories. Science departments offer courses in the knowledge and techniques that ground and facilitate scientific practice, or at least the education and training of scientific professionals of various sorts. History departments offer courses about the history of ancient and modern science, and most often these aim to survey a period of several hundred years and present the achievements of science in the context of an investigation of "Great Experiments" or "Great Men/Women" or the classic texts of science. Philosophy departments offer courses in the philosophy of science, which generally analyze scientific language and what (if anything) is signified by the use of the term "scientific" (e.g. in the phrases "scientific knowledge", "scientific explanation", etc.). But as the HPSS department at RISD is not especially concerned with training scientists, philosophers, or historians, we're free to ask whether/how these different approaches refer to the same enterprise or set of activities in using the word "science", and what that enterprise and/or set of activities is all about. Our emphasis will be on the interpretation of different representations of science and scientific knowledge, and the relations between them, without worrying about disciplinary allegiance, and we'll use these comparisons and contrasts to arrive (I hope) at both a broader and deeper understanding of the complex relations between science and society.


Required Texts:

I: On the Web:

II: Available in paperback editions at the Brown Bookstore

Recommended Texts: (available in paperback editions at the Brown Bookstore)

These and additional books and articles will eventually be on reserve at the RISD library. Our web site will include additional readings and reference material.

Weekly Schedule

Week #1 (September 11): Introduction to the course
From Snow's "The Two Cultures" to the Sokal Hoax, the relationship between social and scientific studies in the US has always been a matter of controversy. We'll discuss different views of this relationship in the last half of the 20th century, and establish a context for this course, as well as the study of science in higher education.

Week #2 (September 16th & 18th): Images of Science in the Early 20th Century I. Haldane's Daedalus; or the Science and the Future, and the outlook & promise(s) of science at the start of the century. How does Haldane's text exemplify characteristics of modernity, and how does the narrator exemplify the "voice of science" in early 20th century narrative?

Week #3 (September 23 & 25): Images of Science in the Early 20th Century II. H.G. Wells' The World Set Free and the power(s) of science at the start of the century. What are the relations between science and the realms of politics, law and the social in Wells' text? How does Wells' prophesy differ from Haldane's? What images in the Wells text do you find most compelling, upsetting and prescient?

Week #4 (September 30th and October 2nd): The discovery of nuclear fission, 1897-1939
We'll review the physics and technology that led to Wells' novel and to the discovery of fission, as well as the mechanism of fission itself. We'll look at the discoveries, calculations and experiments, with attention to the characteristics of scientific knowledge as well as the assumptions implicit in the way that knowledge is inscribed and communicated.

Week #5 (October 7th & 9th): The Manhattan Project I:
The first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction + the formation of the Manhattan Engineer District = the origins of the Manhattan Project. The choices of Oakridge, Los Alamos, and Hanford, and the interplay between the scientific and the social in the early 1940s.

Week #6 (October 16th): The Manhattan Project II
The science of daily life on the Manhattan Project, and questions about the relationship between historical and scientific representations of the process of science.

Week #7 (October 21st & 23rd): The Manhattan Project III
July 16, 1945 (5:29 a.m.) and questions about understanding and representing "Trinity", "The Bomb", "the New World", etc. Reflections on Haldane and Wells.

Week #8 (October 28th & 30th): Transition to Genetics
Where was biology during the discovery of nuclear fission? A brief history and science of genetics and the discovery of DNA, 1865 - 1953. Two views of the background to the HGP.

Week #9 (November 4th & 6th): The Human Genome Project I
The historical politics and/or political history of genetics. Tracing Eugenics in the US and thinking about the place of genetic concepts in contemporary social theories and thoughts.

Week #10 (November 11th & 13th): The Human Genome Project II
What is the Human Genome Project (really), and how does it blend scientific, technological and social efforts? Views from the scientific community and questions about how ethical issues are inscribed in and/or described by science.

Week #11 (November 18th & 20th): The Human Genome Project III
Current developments in the HGP, and continuing questions of scientific and social responsibility as the Project yields "results". Looking at both professional and popular representations of the HGP and reflecting on how best to represent Latour's "networks".

Week #12 (November 25th): The Current Status of the HGP Details and readings TBA.

Week #13 (December 2nd and 4th): The Relationship Between Science and Society at the end of the 20th century

December 9th: Final Exam

Contact information

My office at RISD is 200 Thomas, and I'll schedule office hours based on the schedules of people enrolled in the course. I am most easily reached by e-mail ( or at my office at Brown (502 CIT, 863-7619) where I keep additional hours if you feel like slumming it. I am happy to schedule additional office hours if requested.

© 2002 Roger B. Blumberg