Science and Popular Culture

Books | Schedule | Assignments | Grades | Policies

Course Information

Meeting Time and: Monday 4-6:45pm, FN 2.106
Instructor: Professor Matthew J. Brown
Office Hours: TBD
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Course Description

Mad scientists! Intrepid explorers into the unknown! Nerds! Cold logic! These are just a few of the tropes in our popular representations of science and scientists. Science is variously depicted as cold and logical, as a personal journey of discovery, as a substitute for religion or mythology. The reason to study representations of science and scientists in popular culture is threefold: it can help us gauge the public understanding of science, it can inform us about the ideals we as a culture hold about science and its role in society, and it can help us understand the way that scientists and scientific institutions want to be understood. Studying from the perspective of the humanities, through the lens of popular culture, teaches us to think critically about science, its representation, and its impact on our lives.

In this course, we will look at fictional and non-fictional representations of science and scientists in all forms of media—such as printed text, art, film, television, comic books, and digital media—that is intended for a general audience. Fictional representations of science (sometimes called “lab lit”) differs from “science fiction” in that the former need not be set in a future or extrapolate from contemporary science and technology, and in that science fiction need not actually include any scientists as such or depict the scientific research process. Of course, the two genres frequently overlap, but we will look at not only science fictional representations of science, but also realist fiction, biography, journalism, etc.


General Education Objectives

  • Critical thinking skills — Students will engage in creative and/or innovative thinking, and/or inquiry, analysis, evaluation, synthesis of information, organizing concepts and constructing solutions.
  • Communication skills — Students will demonstrate effective written, oral and visual communication.
  • Social responsibility — Students will demonstrate intercultural competency and civic knowledge by engaging effectively in local, regional, national and global communities.
  • Teamwork — Students will demonstrate the ability to work effectively with others to support a shared purpose or goal and consider different points of view.

ARHM 2343.501 Course Objectives

Students will learn:

  • Critical thinking skills; to critically analyze and evaluate a variety of scientific and pop-cultural texts and artifacts (assessed via questions on the midterm and final exam)
  • Communication skills; to effectively express ideas and critical assessments of texts orally and in writing (assessed via contribution to class discussion, in-class presentation, and essay question on the final exam)
  • Social responsibility; to exhibit an understanding of ethical, social, and political responsibilities of both scientists and of citizens in our scientifically advanced world (assessed via questions on the midterm and final exam)
  • Teamwork; to effectively express the analysis and evaluation of ways of knowing in collaborative group projects and discussion (assess via class discussion and group presentation)

Required Texts


The following books are required reading

  1. Mary Shelley, Frankenstein: Annotated for Scientists, Engineers, and Creators of All Kinds (MIT Press Edition) (or Free PDF)
  2. HP Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
  3. Jim Ottaviani, Feynman
  4. Carl Sagan, Contact
  5. Allegra Goodman, Intuition
  6. Sean Carroll, The Big Picture
  7. Kim Stanley Robinson, Green Earth (The Science in the Capital Trilogy)


  1. H.G. Wells, The Island of Doctor Moreau
  2. Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
  3. Dian Fossey, Gorillas in the Mist

Books have been ordered at Off Campus Books, and likely cannot be found at the on-campus Follett University Bookstore.


The following films will need to be watched outside of class. I will make an effort to schedule screenings for each of these movies prior to class.

  1. Martha Coolidge, Real Genius (1986)
  2. Shane Carruth, Primer (2004) (Netflix)
  3. John Amiel, Creation (2009)
  4. Kyle Patrick Alvarez, The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015) (Netflix)


  1. Michael Apted, Gorillas in the Mist (1988)

The most economical way to watch any of these movies will be to check various streaming services.

Detailed Schedule

  1. 1/8 – Introduction
    • Watch in class: Star Trek, “The Galileo Seven”; The Venture Brothers, “Careers in Science”
  2. 1/15 – MLK Jr Day – No Class

Unit: Representations of Scientists

  1. 1/22 – The Mad Scientist
    • Read before class: Mary Shelley, Frankenstein (main text) and Heather Douglas, “The Bitter Aftertaste of Technical Sweetness”
    • Reading Journal on Frankenstein Due 1/20; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Recommended Reading: HG Wells, The Island of Dr. Moreau
    • Watch in class: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog
    • Other examples: Jekyll and Hyde; The Fly; Soon I Will Be Invincible; Pi; Fringe; Rick and Morty; Better Off Ted
  2. 1/29 – The Nutty Professor
    • Read before class: Jim Ottaviani, Feynman
    • Reading Journal on Feynman Due 1/27; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Watch in class: Futurama, “Time Keeps on Slipping”
    • Other examples: IQ; The Nutty Professor; Back to the Future; Jurassic Park; Independence Day; The Venture Brothers; Richard Feynman; The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension; Ghostbusters; The Absent-Minded Professor; How the Hippies Saved Physics
    • You should also be reading Lovecraft
  3. 2/5 – Scientist as Intrepid Explorer
    • Read before class: HP Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness
    • Reading Journal Due 2/3; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Other examples: Antarctic Expeditions (Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton); Wilson, Resolution; The Martian; Cosmos; Outbreak; Star Trek; The Venture Brothers; Indiana Jones; Master and Commander
  4. 2/12 – The Nerd
    • Watch before class: Real Genius
    • Film Journal Due 2/10; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Watch in class: Big Bang Theory, “Pilot”
    • Other examples: Weird Science; Honey I Shrunk the Kids; Goonies; Revenge of the Nerds; Spiderman; Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.; Dexter’s Laboratory; Lab Rats
    • You should also be reading Contact
  5. 2/19 – Science and Gender
    • Read before class: Contact by Carl Sagan
    • Reading Journal Due 2/17; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Read / watch before class (optional): Gorillas in the Mist
    • Other examples: N.C.I.S; Bones; Big Bang Theory; Dignifying Science by Jim Ottaviani; Adventure Time; Bletchley Circle; X-Files; Emily Graslie; Amazing Spiderman; Jurassic Park; Thor; Deadly; Hidden Figures; Easter Island; The Blind Astronomer’s Daughter; Lab Girl; The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage; Programmed Inequality; The Dark Lady of DNA

Unit: The Scientific Process

  1. 2/26 – Science as a Social Process
    • Read before class: Intuition by Allegra Goodman
    • Reading Journal Due 2/24; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Other examples: Lem, His Master’s Voice; Hidden Figures; The Dispossessed; The Race For The Double Helix; Kinsey; Peircy, He She and It; The Mars Trilogy; 2312; Night Thoughts of a Classical Physicist
  2. 3/5 – Scientific Discovery as Serendipity
    • Watch before class: Primer
    • Film Journal Due 3/3; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Other examples: Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams; The Story of Blanche and Marie; Newton’s Apple; Poincare’s Bus; Kekule’s Ouroboros; Fleming’s Mold; NASA’s accidental warp drive
    • Recommend that you get a head start on long readings from later on, such as Carroll, The Big Picture and Robinson, Green Earth
  3. 3/12 – Spring Break – No Class
    • You should also be reading Carroll / Robinson
  4. 3/19 – Science as Personal Journey
    • Watch in class: Creation
    • Other examples: Galatea 2.2; The Theory of Everything; Easter Island; Lab Girl; Mindhunter
    • You should also be reading Carroll
  5. 3/26 – Ethics in Science
    • Watch Before Class: The Stanford Prison Experiment
    • Film Journal Due 3/24; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Recommended Reading: Philip Zimbardo, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil
    • Revisit: Intution; Real Genius; Primer
    • Other examples: Media reports on science; Harry Harlowe; Robocop; Jurassic Park; Breaking Bad; Tuskeegee; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; J. Marion Sims; The Lifecycle of Software Objects; Lewis, Arrowsmith; Levi, Periodic Table; Lise Eliot, “The Trouble with Sex Differences”; Principal Investigation; I Am Legend; The Discovery; The Invisible Man; Better Off Ted; The Trigger
    • You should also be reading Carroll / Robinson

Unit: Science in Society

  1. 4/2 – Science as Religion / Myth
    • Read before class: Sean Carroll, The Big Picture
    • Reading Journal Due 3/31; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Watch in Class: Cosmos (Carl Sagan); Cosmos (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
    • Other examples: Stephen Hawking, Brief(er) History of Time; Sam Harris, Moral Landscape; Gut Symmetries; Contact; The Discovery; Inherit the Wind
  2. 4/9 – Science and Nationalism
    • Watch in Class: Copenhagen
    • Other examples: 2010: The Year We Make Contact; Doctor Strangelove; J. Robert Oppenheimer; Cryptonomicon; Radiance; Los Alamos
    • You should also be reading Robinson
  3. 4/16 – Science and Politics
    • Finish reading before class: Green Earth by Kim Stanley Robinson
    • Reading Journal Due 4/14; Comments by 1pm before class
    • Special Guest via Skype: Kim Stanley Robinson
    • Other examples: IPCC Report; Wonder Woman; Many other Kim Stanley Robinson novels; Life of Galileo; The Dispossessed; Inherit the Wind; The Trigger
  4. 4/23 – Science Changing Culture


  1. Attendance and participation
  2. Weekly reading journals — ~2 pages/wk
  3. Weekly peer responses — ~4-6 pages/wk
  4. Original analysis — Bring an example of pop culture fitting daily theme and critically analyze it.

Grading Criteria

This course uses a form of grading based in adult learning theory called “specifications grading.” On that theory, adults learn better in a flexible and low-threat but interesting and challenging learning environment. High expectations are important for your success. This course creates such an environment and expectations, allowing you to direct your learning in a way that meets your personal learning objectives. Every assignment is simply graded “satisfactory/unsatisfactory,” though “satisfactory” here is more closely associated with competence or mastery that barely passing. The conditions for satisfactory work will be clearly specified for each assignment. There will be no partial credit. Every passing grade shows some level of genuinely competent work.

Grades will be determined by satisfactory performance to the following specifications:

  • For a D in this course:
    1. 6 reading journals
    2. 10 responses
    3. No more than 6 absences
  • For a C in this course:
    1. 7 reading journals
    2. 12 responses
    3. Original analysis presentation
    4. No more than 4 absences
  • For a B in this course:
    1. 8 reading journals
    2. 16 responses
    3. Original analysis presentation
    4. Course participation assessment
    5. No more than 3 absences
  • For a A in this course:
    1. 10 reading journals
    2. 20 responses
    3. Journal progress assessment
    4. Original analysis presentation
    5. Course participation assessment
    6. No more than 2 absences


Some flexibility is added to the course via the “token” system. You each begin the semester with 2 tokens. Tokens can be spent in the following ways:

  1. Free reading journal
  2. Free response
  3. Free absence

Tokens can be earned in the following ways:

  1. Attend a Special Event and write a report (1 point each, max 5)
  2. Exemplary participation (1-3 points)

Tokens also determine whether you have a plus or minus added to your grade:

0 tokens
minus (-)
1-3 tokens
4+ tokens
plus (+)

Course Policies

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