The Course

Prof. Provided Class Description

This is a course on the issues of Science and Society offered jointly by the Physics Department and Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. The enrollment is not limited to the students of the two sponsoring Departments – the goal is to achieve a truly transdisciplinary mix of non-science and science students with diverse backgrounds. Students can take SIS 216 or PHYS 216 towards either their NW or towards their I&S requirement. For JSIS students, SIS 216 or PHYS 216 counts as one of the SIS Core Courses, and the term paper can be developed into the SIS Qualifying Paper.

Modern science is an awesome, exciting adventure. Quite inexplicably, we seem able to investigate Nature, from detailed aspects of the Big Bang, through the machinery of our own genome, all the way to the Quantum Mechanics of quarks and neutrinos. The range of potential benefits is mind-boggling. At the same time, many thinkers have pointed out the ever-increasing gap between the cumulative, exponential progress in science and technology on the one hand, and on the other hand, the lack of comparable progress in our ability to use our new technological tools thoughtfully and responsibly. This gap cannot keep increasing forever. Some people think that we might be in the process of acquiring powers that we should not have, and that catastrophic consequences are not only possible, but probable or even inevitable. An informed, educated citizen ought to know enough about science to be able to appreciate the enormous potential benefits as well as the possible dangers which science represents.

In this course, we will explore the current status and developments in Physics, Nanotechnology, Biotechnology and Computer Science, and we will discuss the implications for society at the local, national and international (global) level. First we will learn, from scratch (i.e. without any pre-requisites) but in considerable detail, about the fundamental concepts of Nuclear Physics and Molecular Biology. There will be some numerical calculations and reasoning, but no previous knowledge of physics or math is assumed.

Then, in the discussion part of the course, we will learn how NASA plans to listen to the gravitational symphony of the Universe, how do astrophysicists know what happened fifteen billions years ago (and exactly what happened in the first three minutes), we will learn about Schrodinger’s cat and Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, and we will contemplate the marvelous interplay of DNA, RNA and proteins. And we will spend equal time on discussing methods of risk assessment, we will try to find out if the Brookhaven National Laboratory could accidentally produce a black hole which will eat the Planet, or if a biological accident could wipe out Civilization. Particular emphasis will be on the fundamental impact which science and technology have, and will have in the future, on the international relations. We will also discuss the ideas of the Intelligent Design, and the issues of science and religion in general. There will be both exuberance and humility in our treatment of the issues, and both feelings will often be illustrated using the playground of Music.

Student learning goals

  • Students will learn, in considerable detail, about two disciplines with important impact on society: Nuclear Physics and Molecular Biology. In the past, the English majors and political science majors were not lost, and the physics and biology majors were not bored – students were learning not just from the Instructor but also from each other.
  • Students will be lead to appreciate both the potential benefits as well as the possible dangers that Science and Technology can bring.
  • The course emphasizes the need for critical evaluation of information received from TV, press, Internet and other media.
  • The course offers ample opportunity for improvements in students’ writing and public speaking.
  • The music aspect of the course has been appreciated as a valuable learning experience by many students in the past.

General method of instruction

Two 2-hour lectures weekly, and a 1-hour section on Fridays.

Recommended preparation

There are no pre-requisites for this course, other than interest in the subject matter, and desire to learn new things.

Class assignments and grading

Readings, homework, response papers, term paper. Several short response papers, term project/paper, final exam.

Combination of the performance on the items mentioned above.


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