Science and Popular Culture 2015

Course Schedule | Required Texts | Assignments | Course Policies | Topic Summaries

Course Information

Meeting Time: Tuesday, 7:00pm-9:45pm
Meeting Location: FO 1.202
Instructor: Professor Matthew J. Brown
Office Hours: Monday & Tuesday, 5:00-6:00pm, JO 4.120, or by appointment
Schedule an appointment:

Course Description

This course will focus on portrayals of science in popular culture. Science is a process of research and inquiry, usually involving empirical evidence, which we will take to include natural, human, and social sciences as well as medical research and engineering. Popular culture includes fiction and non-fiction across all forms of media—such as printed text, art, film, television, comic books, and digital media—that is intended for a general audience. The reason to study representations of science and scientists in popular culture is threefold: it can help us gage 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. Furthermore, in this course, we will learn to think critically about science and its representation in each of these roles.

Required Texts


The following books are required reading

Books have been ordered at Off Campus Books, and likely cannot be found at the on-campus Follett University Bookstore. My preference is that you order the version of the books that are available there, or linked below via Amazon, so that we can refer to shared page numbers in class discussion. Hard copies are preferred for the same reason. You may use a distraction-free eReader version with prior approval of the instructor. Off Campus Books is a locally-owned business, and you should consider supporting it over ordering online.


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.

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

Detailed Schedule

  1. 8/25 – Introduction
    • Watch in class: Star Trek, “The Galileo Seven”; The Venture Brothers, “Careers in Science”

Unit: Representations of Scientists

  1. 9/1 – The Mad Scientist
    • Read before class: The Island of Doctor Moreau by HG Wells
    • Watch in class: Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-Long Blog
    • Other examples: Frankenstein; Jekyll and Hyde the Musical; The Fly; Soon I Will Be Invincible; Pi; Fringe; Rick and Morty
  2. 9/8 – The Nutty Professor
    • Read before class: Jim Ottaviani, Feynman
    • 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
  3. 9/15 – Scientist as Intrepid Explorer
    • Read before class: At the Mountains of Madness by HP Lovecraft
    • Other examples: Antarctic Expeditions (Scott, Amundsen, Shackleton); Cosmos; Outbreak; Star Trek; The Venture Brothers; Indiana Jones
  4. 9/22 – The Nerd
    • Watch before class: Real Genius
    • 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
  5. 9/29 – Women in Science
    • Read before class: Contact by Carl Sagan
    • 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
  6. 10/6 – Midterm

Unit: The Scientific Process

  1. 10/13 – Science as a Social Process
    • Read before class: Intuition by Allegra Goodman
  2. 10/20 – Scientific Discovery as Serendipity
    • Watch before class: Primer
    • Other examples: Newton’s Apple; Poincare’s Bus; Kekule’s Ouroboros; Fleming’s Mold; NASA’s accidental warp drive
  3. 10/27 – Science as Personal Journey
    • Watch in class: Creation
  4. 11/3 – Misrepresentations and Irresponsibility in Science

Unit: Science in Society

  1. 11/10 – Science as Religion / Myth
    • Read before class: Stephen Hawking, A Briefer History of Time
    • Watch in Class: Cosmos (Carl Sagan); Cosmos (Neil deGrasse Tyson)
  2. 11/17 – Science and Nationalism
    • Read before class: Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson part I (There will be a quiz)
    • Watch in Class: Copenhagen
    • Other examples: 2010: The Year We Make Contact; Doctor Strangelove; J. Robert Oppenheimer
  3. 11/24 – Fall break
  4. 12/1 – Science Informing Politics
    • Finish reading before class: Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson
    • Other examples: IPCC Report; Wonder Woman
  5. 12/8 – Science Changing Culture


  1. Attendance and participation (20%) — Quality and frequency of your in-class participation (this can be improved but not entirely substituted by attending office hours). Absences will lower this grade one letter grade per absence after the 2nd absence. (i.e., two free absences)
  2. Midterm exam (20%) — Mainly checking to see whether you have done the reading and watching assignments and understood the major concepts from lecture and class discussion. (Practice questions)
  3. Show and tell (15%) — Bring an example of pop culture fitting daily theme and critically analyze it. You can work together in pairs, and you are encouraged to do so. 5-8 minute presentation, with a bit of Q&A at the end. You’re strongly encouraged to consult with the professor ahead of time. Assignment details. Topic Summaries.
  4. Final exam (30%) — Essay format, testing your ability to critically analyze texts and synthesize ideas from the course. More info.
  5. Quizzes (as needed) (15%) — To ensure you are keeping up with reading assignments. Not necessarily announced ahead of time.

All components must be completed in satisfactory manner in order to receive a passing grade in the course.

Course Policies